A new study finds that more prosocial people are less aggressive in competition—but they tend to win out in the long run.
BY JILL SUTTIE JULY 8, 2019 SCIENCE
Looking back at the financial collapse of 2008, I often wonder: How could investors have been so greedy? It seems as if they were so bent on “winning” that they made pretty dumb investments, which cost them—and the rest of us—dearly. In fact, history is filled with examples of people behaving aggressively for short-term gain, only to pay a long-term cost. Why do we keep behaving this way?
My question is at the heart of a new study by Carsten de Dreu and colleagues published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Their findings give us insight into the relationship between aggression, empathy, and decision making.
The Relationship Between Empathy and Decision-Making
In the study, participants played an investment game called “Predator-Prey Contest”—similar to the old board game Risk—which measures how much people will invest to win money off of others versus defending their own holdings. Participants were paired up with different players and given up to 10 euros to invest in each round—half the time playing the role of “attacker,” half the time acting as a “defender” (though these labels were not used in the experiment’s setup to avoid leading people one way or another).
Attackers won a round if they invested more money than a defender and kept whatever they and their defender hadn’t spent. So, for example, if an attacker invested 6 euros and the defender invested 5, the attacker “won” and ended up with 9 euros (the 4 they saved + the 5 the defender didn’t spend). However, if attackers invested the same amount or less than defenders, they lost what they’d invested. The researchers used how much people invested in either role as a measure of their aggressiveness.
The researchers wanted to understand what influenced aggressive investing and how that determined players’ winnings. In particular, they looked at whether being prosocial (other-oriented and empathic) toward others, in general, affected people’s aggression. They also considered whether deliberating longer or being stressed influenced investment choices.
“When you have higher levels of empathy and a more prosocial orientation, you are more cooperative and leave other people at peace.”
In initial analyses, the researchers observed that participants were generally less willing to invest in attacking another for gain than they were in defending their own earnings. This fit with longstanding economic theory around decision making.
“People are more motivated—they’re willing to invest more—to protect against loss than they are to increase wealth or prosperity,” says de Dreu.
They also found, unsurprisingly, that more prosocial people tended to attack others less aggressively for gain than people who were less prosocial—though they were just as fierce at defending against loss. This suggests that prosocial people might be less aggressive, but they aren’t pushovers, either.
“When you have higher levels of empathy and a more prosocial orientation, you are more cooperative and leave other people at peace, unless these people are a threat to you,” says de Dreu.
The Role of Empathy in Competition
In one experiment, de Dreu and colleagues measured the time it took to make the decisions in each role and how that related to aggression. In the second, they cognitively stressed people to see how that affected decision-making time and aggression—by, for example, having them look through a text and cross out the letter “e,” but only when the “e” was followed by a vowel or was a letter away from a vowel.
Through these manipulations, the researchers found that aggression works best in concert with some degree of thoughtfulness: Participants who took longer to make investment decisions in the attacker mode were more strategic. They won rounds without spending as much money—while participants who were cognitively stressed made poorer decisions. However, here the prosocial people had an advantage. They generally slowed down their decision making and so made better choices, resulting in more money for them at the end of the game.
“If we shorten the time people have to think, or demotivate them by making them tired, then they become more irrational,” says de Dreu. “The irony is that you can win a competition; but if you spend all of your money and effort on winning, you don’t have anything left in your pocket at the end of the day.”
De Dreu realizes these economic games are not “real life.” But, he insists, they can still give us insight into how people respond in real-world competitions, like in business or in war. We’ve all seen instances where people compete to the point where no one has anything left, he says—for example, “when you win the battle, but your army is so weakened that a small army on the other side could come in and eradicate you.”
It seems we can make better choices about investing our resources if we consider others and take more time to deliberate.
It seems we can make better choices about investing our resources if we consider others and take more time to deliberate…especially since we’ll still defend ourselves aggressively when that’s required.
“If we have this in the forefront of our minds, when we face these kinds of competitions, we’ll more quickly think, Maybe I should not engage in this much or at all,” he says.
In future studies, de Dreu hopes to understand why people are aggressive in the first place. After all, in the economics game, not investing any money in attacking another means you go home with your full 10 euros. “If you can be cooperative and not invest in attacking another person, why shouldn’t you?” says de Dreu. He speculates that reward centers in our brains may light up when we “win,” driving competitive impulses despite the costs. His next study will consider this question.
In the meantime, he says, embracing empathy and taking our time when making decisions could help us all to cut down on unnecessary aggression and still win out…at least economically speaking, if not in other avenues of life. “Empathy is a way to tone down the need to win and keep it in check,” says de Dreu.
This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, one of Mindful’s partners. View the original article.
The public discourse surrounding mental health has come a looong way. Today, celebs (Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Jennifer Lawrence , Ellen Degeneres, and Kristen Bell, to name a few) speak up regularly about experiencing and managing various mental health issues and use their public platform to help normalize the topic. Mental health days are finally become a thing that bosses and workplaces respect and even encourage. And more and more women are seeking out at-home remedies—CBD, exercise, meditation—to help take care of their emotional well-being.
But despite those steps forward, paired with the reality that mental health conditions are so common (nearly one in five people in this country live with one), talking about mental health still isn’t easy or comfortable for many people.
And that's a problem, experts say. But what are reasons behind this hesitation, and how can you overcome any nerves and be more forthcoming about your mental health status? Keep reading.
To start, so many mental health issues still carry a stigma attached to them.
Sure, society’s made strides at being more accepting of and open about mental health issues. But the stigma surrounding mental health problems or illness still deters people from speaking up and seeking help, says Sari Chait, PhD, founder of Behavioral Health and Wellness Center, LLC, in Newton, Massachusetts. You may worry that you'll be judged, or looked down on, or assigned certain stereotypes associated with a particular mental health condition.
The desire to meet certain social expectations or fill specific gender or familial roles may also play a part in why some people keep quiet. For example, people who identify as more masculine could be less likely to open up because they want to appear strong and self-sufficient, says Nicole Issa, PsyD, founder of PVD Psychological Associates in Providence, Rhode Island.
Chait adds, “In some cultures or families, there is a sentiment that people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and just move on.” Or, perhaps you are a parent or you take on a caregiver role of sorts, and you worry about appearing vulnerable or weak in front of your children or another individual who relies on you.
Others may stay private about mental health problems due to fear of penalization, like in the workplace. “Many individuals seem to worry about being punished for having mental health difficulties or [being] labeled as ‘unstable,” Issa says. This is an unfortunate reality, given that research has suggested that having an untreated mental health condition can impair a person's work performance.
Sometimes, the mental health condition itself can discourage you from speaking about it.
As Chait explains, if you have anxiety, you might be in a spiral of negative, anxious thoughts, thinking that you won’t feel better ever; this may keep you from communicating your situation to someone. If you’re dealing with depression, you could feel hopeless, which might lead you to think, why bother?
But there’s a bigger, more pervasive issue keeping some people silent, too: “Many people worry that what they are experiencing is abnormal—and that nobody else feels that way,” Chait notes.
(Spoiler alert: That couldn’t be further from the truth.)
Even though it can feel intimidating, here’s why it can be beneficial to open up about your mental health (when you're ready).
Talking about it can actually help fend off, prevent, and even work to improve symptoms of mental health conditions. “Often, mental health struggles are a huge burden that people carry in silence, and simply receiving some support can help individuals feel better,” Issa says.
In fact, a growing body of research finds that social support is *huge* if you have a mental health condition, helping you develop feelings of security, communication skills, and positive experiences that can help buffer against stress and improve both mental and physical health. Opening up via therapy, too, is an effective and proven means of learning skills to cope with your feelings. And having these coping skills (that you developed by being communicative with a mental health pro) can, in turn, help you feel better.
But speaking up also matters because it can be contagious. “People often want to talk about their mental health concerns but feel like they will be judged,” says Chait. “Once they know they won't be, it helps them open up.”
Of course, being transparent about how you’re actually feeling on the reg is easier said than done.
It also doesn’t always have to involve a heart-to-heart over coffee with your bestie (though, hey, it totally can); there are other little steps to help you gradually express how you’re feeling more often.
If you’re hesitant about sharing more about your mental health, try these five strategies to help you get there:
Let’s be real—the mere thought of finding a therapist who’s a good fit (or a friend who has time to lend a listening ear) can be downright exhausting. Instead, try opening up even casually to someone you’re super close with by sharing benign details about your day.
Work up to telling her about your emotions and see how she responds: “For some people, they may feel most comfortable by sharing one small detail about how they feel to test the waters,” Chait says.
Ask others how they are.
Realizing that not *everyone* constantly sees the world through peachy shades or lives the life you see on Insta can help you see you’re not alone in feeling down/stressed/anxious/unsure from time to time.
The more consistently you show the people in your life that you care and give them a safe space to talk about what’s going on, the more likely that they will let their guard down in your conversations. They also will probably return the favor, and hopefully motivate you to open up. Then, you’ve built a non-judgmental social environment together.
Keep a journal.
Not quite ready to put it all out there for the world to hear? Put your feelings and thoughts on paper. “Journaling is a great tool that many people find helpful for getting their feelings out of their head,” says Chait. “There is no right or wrong way to do it.”
Keep a formal diary, jot quick bullet points down on napkins, use your voice recorder on your smartphone, or keep a running document on your computer of how you’re feeling. Expressive writing, where you pretty much spill your heart out via writing, can help “offload” worries, lower anxiety levels, and even help boost your performance later.
Challenge negative thoughts.
Think you’re going to be judged? Worried you’ll face backlash if you speak up? Ask yourself whose judgements you’re really worried about, and take a moment to think realistically about the scenario. “Look at evidence from other times you have opened up in the past or sought support,” Issa suggests.
Often, we crack worries up to be waaaayy bigger deals in our minds. Checking in with yourself to see if you’re catastrophizing can help bring you back to reality, she adds.
Do a therapy consultation.
Many mental health professionals offer an initial consultation for prospective clients. “This is a safe way to try telling a non-judgmental person a bit about what you're experiencing and seeing if it feels like something you want to try,” she says.
If it feels right, and financially you can swing it, this may be an entry point into starting a consistent therapy regimen for you. (If you can’t afford it, ask the therapist if a sliding-scale payment system is available, or if they can refer you to someone they trust who may be able to work with you and your financial status.) Don’t love the therapist? A good one will also work with you to find someone you do vibe with, she says.
CASSIE SHORTSLEEVE Freelance Writer
Cassie Shortsleeve is a skilled freelance writer and editor with almost a decade of experience reporting on all things health, fitness, and travel.
Acceptance of the good and not so good, your strengths and weaknesses is an ongoing process that requires, patience compassion and awareness but it can be nurtured. Four ways to foster self acceptance are:
1. Learn to forgive yourself. Forgiveness is about letting go of a past that can not be changed. Learn from the mistakes of the past, understand the root problems and let it go and allow yourself to grow
2. Celebrate your strengths. Everyday is a day to celebrate.
3. Consider the people around you. Are the reinforcing the negative self talk? Who speaks negatively to me?
4. Quiet your inner critic. Why not say to yourself, " I am only human. I am doing the best I can. "
Some people are under the misapprehension that therapy is for wusses. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As Richard Taite, founder of Cliffside Malibu and big proponent of behavior change, told me earlier this year, “Not only do successful people not fear therapy, they embrace it…. Psychotherapy is a tool that creates success. Smart people use it.” And therapy is not just something that smart people use, it’s something that most everybody should probably try during at least some point in their lives.
Here’s why: Many of us grew up under the impression that internal stuff shouldn’t be discussed – it should be swept under the rug. This is perhaps the single worst thing you can do for yourself. Stamping down your emotions and not working through your psychological issues – especially serious pain or abuse in the past – can culminate in a host of problems. If you need a numbers-based reason to convince you, depression alone is a major player in the global burden of disease, the leading cause of disability worldwide, and responsible for billions of dollars a year in lost work.
To discuss the benefits of therapy, I spoke with Marian Margulies, PhD, a psychologist in New York City and candidate in psychoanalysis at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Education at the NYU Medical Center. The beauty of “talk therapy,” especially forms like psychodynamic, is that it addresses not just the symptoms but also the causes of one’s problems. Antidepressants, though essential for some people, don’t exactly get to the underlying source. “If you’re not getting to the cause of the pain,” says Margulies, “you’re essentially chained to the past. Psychotherapy gets to the root.”
1. Therapy’s effects persist over the long-haul
A huge benefit of talk therapy is that its effects are long-lasting. This is because you’re not only working through stuff, but you’re also developing the tools to help you deal with future stuff. “Psychodynamic treatment is durable over the years,” says Margulies. “The positive gains continue and grow over time as though some of the work gets further consolidated after therapy stops. This makes sense to me because it suggests that we continue to use the reflective lens in thinking about, talking about and expressing feelings about our inner lives after we end treatment. The whole talking-with-the-therapist process gets internalized so that self-therapy picks up where the actual therapy leaves off.” Though medication may be essential for some, it does run the risk of relapse after it’s discontinued. The “getting-to-the-cause” aspect of therapy is a big reason why antidepressants and therapy together are believed to be most effective.
2. Physical symptoms get treated, too
Psychological trauma, or even general ennui, can trigger physical symptoms – and depression and anxiety are well known to have significant, and sometimes debilitating, physical effects. Going to therapy, assuming it’s successful, can help these issues fade away. “There have been some studies that show that many physical ailments are ameliorated when someone engages in therapy,” says Margulies. “When people do not express feelings but swallow them and keep them buried and out of conscious awareness, one’s body often reacts. It acts as a barometer that reads: danger! Something is amiss and needs attention. Somatizing via stomach aches, headaches, sleeping problems, and ulcers are just some of the ways our body reacts to stress and psychic pain.”
3. Repressed emotions will come back to haunt you later on
The most serious drawback of not talking about things may be that unexpressed feelings and traumas can pile up and explode later. “Lots of people avoid talking about their feelings about a whole host of things,” says Margulies. “But repressing or damping down one’s feelings doesn’t make the feelings go away. If anything, they linger and fester, only to explode when an innocuous comment is made.” Even if you don’t have a full-on breakdown later on, not fully processing events and emotions often creates negative thought patterns that can inform every area in your life – your relationships with your spouse, parents, kids, coworkers, and even yourself. So learning how to process them can change how you maneuver in many different ways.
4. And the passive-aggressive shtick will fade away
When you work through ancient (or recent) anger, it actually gets processed so that it no longer has to seep out passive-aggressively. “Angry feelings are often expressed in a passive aggressive manner rather than a more direct and less aggressive manner,” says Margulies. “Someone who feels slighted might make a sarcastic remark in return, or not show up at an agreed upon time, ‘forgetting’ the appointment.” So get rid of the passive-aggressive form of expression – your loved ones will thank you.
5. It will give you a whole new perspective on other people, too
An awesome benefit of therapy is that it not only helps you understand yourself better but it helps you understand other people. When we hold negative thoughts in without processing them, they become ingrained so that we see the world through that lens – and we make lots of assumptions that may or may not be true. “In my work with people in psychoanalytically oriented therapy,” says Margulies, “they come to see how they often make assumptions about what the other person intended. Then when they actually do a reality check by asking a friend what they were thinking when they said something, they are often surprised to hear they had a totally different take.” Without the clutter of your own (often mistaken) assumptions, it’s a lot easier to understand others’ intentions and motivations.
6. It helps you deal with future curve balls
Since big and small problems are going to come up from time to time, knowing how to deal with them in a healthy way is an essential skill. “Conflict is a part of everyday life,” says Margulies. “It’s helpful to be aware of one’s feelings around conflict. If, for example, you are angry with your boss who is piling up work for you when you are getting ready to go away, you are bound to feel resentment and conflict. By reflecting on what’s going on outside (your boss’ demands) and inside (your mounting anger, irritation, and fear of losing your job if you say ‘no’), you are in a better position to resolve the conflict. Talking things through with someone and reflecting on what feelings are evoked, and why, leads to a greater understanding of oneself. Then one is freer to think of ways to respond in a more proactive way.” Learning how not to get swallowed up by events, but instead how to form a game plan to deal with them, is the key (and it takes a lot of practice).
7. Talking about things gives them shape
Have you ever noticed how turning a problem around and around in your head often gets you precisely nowhere? It’s so easy to feel dwarfed by a problem when it’s just an amorphous blob in your head – but talking about it gives it a beginning, middle, and end. And that helps you wrap your brain around it. “When I think of the process of engaging in talk therapy, I think of the analogy with writing,” says Margulies. “The more you write, the more you know what you are trying to say – it clarifies your thinking. Similarly with talking and with talk therapy, one becomes more aware of what is making one feel anxious, sad, angry or frustrated. And then one is freer to decide how to manage these feelings or take action to alleviate them.”
Even if you can’t get to therapy, just talking about a problem with a friend can be helpful: Lay out the issue, and it will become clearer, more logical, and therefore more manageable.
8. You know you’re not alone
Seeing a psychologist can be a huge relief in-and-of itself since you know you’re taking action against what ails you. It also comforting just knowing that you have a built-in support structure that you can go to once a week. And, if you’re so inclined, joining a support group for people grappling with similar issues as you – say, divorce – can be very helpful. “If one, for example, is newly divorced and feeling sad and lonely, then joining a support group might help alleviate some of the painful feelings.” Not that misery loves company, but it is true that being with people who are dealing with similar issues can be very reassuring.
9. It will rewire your brain
One of the coolest things about therapy is that it can bring about change at the level of the brain. We think of medication as changing the depressed brain, but there’s very compelling evidence that talk therapy does the same. With brain imaging methods, psychotherapy has been shown to alter activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, the hippocampus, and the amygdala. These areas are involved in self-referential thoughts (“me”-centered worry thoughts), executive control, emotion, and fear. (For some interesting research and reviews, see here, here, and here.)
One very effective method, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), helps people identify the negative thought patterns they fall back on habitually – which are no doubt wired into the brain like deep ruts – and replace them with new and more positive mental habits. In addition to helping people experience fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, it, too, seems to bring about brain changes that are measurable.
10. You won’t have to self-medicate anymore
Self-medicating to “deal” with psychological stuff is incredibly common. But it doesn’t do anything to actually address what’s going on – it just masks it. It also creates an addictive cycle, which may exacerbate the real problem. Getting to the root of your past stuff in therapy will, with time, obviate the need to self-medicate. When you’re no longer living by the negative things in your past, the need to avoid them – and yourself – will disappear.
11. It enables you to teach the next generation a better way
The best thing about dealing with your own stuff is that, if you have kids, it helps you teach them a better way. For those who grew up in households where stuff just wasn’t talked about, look how many decades later we’re still dealing with the fallout of that method. “Parents can help their children learn a vocabulary of feelings early on by modeling it themselves,” says Margulies. “This gives children the feeling that it is not only okay but healthy to express themselves through all the colors of their emotions. That it is important to express anger when they feel they’ve been ignored or unfairly treated or when someone says something hurtful. The alternative is to repress the feeling, feel resentful, perhaps act out one’s anger in defiant behavior. The time to start talking about feelings is as early as possible.”
* * *
People are starting to open up more about their personal struggles and mental health issues. The stigma seems seems to be fading, if slowly. If you feel therapy would benefit you, go for it. And if you can’t, talk with friends – they will be grateful you opened up and it may give them the green light to do the same. Chances are it will help kick off some important dialogues.
We often underestimate the importance and benefits of breathing. Think of breathing as an action that restores, cleanses, strengthens and energizes the mind and the body. Although we breathe everyday we also are not aware of how we are breathing and whether we are getting the full benefit of each breath we we take.
Staying positive is a skill that many struggle with. It is easier to notice what is wrong with ourselves, others and our lives. Like any skill remaining positive requires practice and attention. Think positively and the mental and personal benefits will come.
Take some time to read the three ways we can start thinking more positively.
1. Separate Fact from Fiction
The first step in learning to focus on the positive requires knowing how to stop negative self-talk in its tracks. The more you ruminate on negative thoughts, the more power you give them. Most of our negative thoughts are just that — thoughts, not facts.
When you find yourself believing the negative and pessimistic things your inner voice says, it’s time to stop and write them down. Literally stop what you’re doing and write down what you’re thinking. Once you’ve taken a moment to slow down the negative momentum of your thoughts, you will be more rational and clear-headed in evaluating their veracity. Evaluate these statements to see if they’re factual. You can bet the statements aren’t true any time you see words like never, always, worst, ever, etc.
Do you really always lose your keys? Of course not. Perhaps you forget them frequently, but most days you do remember them. Are you never going to find a solution to your problem? If you really are that stuck, maybe you’ve been resisting asking for help. Or if it really is an intractable problem, then why are you wasting your time beating your head against the wall? If your statements still look like facts once they’re on paper, take them to a friend or colleague you can trust, and see if he or she agrees with you. Then the truth will surely come out.
When it feels like something always or never happens, this is just your brain’s natural threat tendency inflating the perceived frequency or severity of an event. Identifying and labeling your thoughts as thoughts by separating them from the facts will help you escape the cycle of negativity and move toward a positive new outlook.
2. Identify a Positive
Once you snap yourself out of self-defeating, negative thoughts, it’s time to help your brain learn what you want it to focus on — the positive.
This will come naturally after some practice, but first you have to give your wandering brain a little help by consciously selecting something positive to think about. Any positive thought will do to refocus your brain’s attention. When things are going well, and your mood is good, this is relatively easy. When things are going poorly, and your mind is flooded with negative thoughts, this can be a challenge. In these moments, think about your day and identify one positive thing that happened, no matter how small. If you can’t think of something from the current day, reflect on the previous day or even the previous week. Or perhaps there is an exciting event you are looking forward to that you can focus your attention on.
The point here is you must have something positive that you’re ready to shift your attention to when your thoughts turn negative. Step one stripped the power from negative thoughts by separating fact from fiction. Step two is to replace the negative with a positive. Once you have identified a positive thought, draw your attention to that thought each time you find yourself dwelling on the negative. If that proves difficult, you can repeat the process of writing down the negative thoughts to discredit their validity, and then allow yourself to freely enjoy positive thoughts.
3. Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude
Taking time to contemplate what you’re grateful for isn’t merely the “right” thing to do; it reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23%. Research conducted at the University of California, Davis, found that people who worked daily to cultivate an attitude of gratitude experienced improved mood, energy and substantially less anxiety due to lower cortisol levels.
You cultivate an attitude of gratitude by taking time out every day to focus on the positive. Any time you experience negative or pessimistic thoughts, use this as a cue to shift gears and think about something positive. In time, a positive attitude will become a way of life.
Travis Bradberry, Ph.D.
Dr. Travis Bradberry is the award-winning coauthor of Emotional Intelligence 2.0