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Emergency situations amplify individual tendencies to behave egoistically or prosocially

In emergency situations do people think solely of themselves? In a study published in Nature Scientific Reports, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development have shown that readiness to respond depends heavily on personality.

The researchers found that, in their experiments, prosocial and altruistic people in particular often helped others even more in an emergency situation than in a relaxed and non-threatening situation, whereas selfish participants became less cooperative.

"Emergency situations seem to amplify people's natural tendency to cooperate," says Mehdi Moussaïd, researcher in the Center for Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.

The researchers invited 104 participants to act out scenarios in a computer game that they developed specifically for the experiment. In this ‘help-or-escape dilemma game,’ participants under time and monetary pressure had to decide whether they were willing to risk taking time to help others before reaching their goal or saving themselves in two different situations: one everyday and one emergency situation. After the game, the researchers measured participants' social value orientation - that is, their concern for others- and categorized them as having a prosocial or individualistic profile.

Overall, participants helped others less in the emergency situation because of the time pressure they were under. However, when the researchers focused on individual participants, they found that many of those categorized as prosocial were more helpful in the emergency situation: 44 percent of them were more ready to help in the emergency than in the everyday situation. The opposite was true of participants categorized as individualistic, 52 percent of whom reduced their cooperative actions in the emergency situation.

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