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Living in big cities amidst strangers can make people swiftly 'switch off' their propensity to be benevolent and honest to others, mainly when such cooperative behavior would not directly benefit them, according to a study.
Researchers from the University of Miami in the United States suggest that although humans learned long ago to without conscious thought be freehearted and fair-minded to others, they can rapidly forget that cooperative behavior when meeting strangers.
The study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, backs the thesis that our deep-rooted indulgent spirit is a leftover of our evolutionary past.
"When we lived in small groups, we knew every person in our social circle and we never knew who we might need to help us. Over time, we automatized the decision to be kind out of self-interest," said William H B McAuliffe, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Miami.
"We have a natural karma built into us because our minds have evolved into thinking that what goes around really does come around," said McAuliffe.
However, the study shows that the 'cognitive shortcut' we have reinforced into our brains to be generous or fair can be easily switched off if we find out there will not be any payback, either negative or positive.
The researchers revealed this factor by exposing 200 volunteers to social surroundings in absence of any incentive or penalty for how they treated others and tracking how their conduct changed over time. However, sitting at comforts with earphones, the participants did not communicate with each other. They made all their decisions and collected all their winnings anonymously and in private.
During the first round, the study showed, participants acted as expected: Acting on habits molded by their everyday experiences, they split happenings with strangers fairly and shared about half their earnings with foundation. However, on their return visit about a month later, they were not as generous, sharing, on average, about 20 percent less.