At this point, no one would blame you for thinking the world is full of meanies. But, a new study suggests that we do actually care a lot about other people — even to the point of sacrificing our own wellbeing.
In the study, published this week in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, participants in the U.K. were put into 45 pairs; each partner was randomly assigned to be the "receiver" or the "decider." The two were always in separate rooms and the decisions were kept secret from the receivers. The deciders first went through a series of scenarios in which they had to say how many shocks they would tolerate for a certain amount of money. They knew that one of their chosen scenarios would actually be implemented and that both the decider and the receiver would get that number of shocks.
Results showed that participants would sacrifice about 20 pence to avoid a shock to themselves, but would forgo twice as much to keep their partners from getting shocked. As the researchers put it, these experiments show two situations in which "people valued others' pain more than their own pain."
This certainly isn't the only paper examining our rather shocking tendencies — we even have a history of shocking ourselves. In a study recently published in Science, participants preferred to give themselves shocks over simply being alone with their own thoughts. This was true despite the fact that many of them reported that they would actually pay money to avoid a shock.
And, in the famous Milgram study, participants were told to give other people what they thought were increasingly stronger shocks, but the other people were simply acting. Participants strongly resisted, but most still complied. Although these results have been interpreted and reinterpreted in many ways, they do suggest that we both want to please authority figures and can feel others' pain quite deeply.
So, while being a doormat can be a bad thing, we should recognize that it comes from a well-meaning place. Thankfully, most examples of real-world people-pleasing don't involve electric shocks.