Advisers feel your pain, but not your gain

Why we are more cautious when we make choices for other people

Making decisions for oneself can be delicate and emotionally challenging, because the outcome is frequently delayed in time and obscure. Making decisions for others can be even more tricky, as you have to take someone else's tastes and the issue of liability into account. According to new research, we are systematically biased when we make so-called "surrogate choices", because we inevitably turn a blind eye to certain aspects of others' emotional life.

A fundamental ethical principle is that we should treat others as we ought to be treated. Yet, what people advise others to do is often different from what they choose for themselves, say psychologists Jason Dana and Daylian M. Cain from Yale University. For example, it has been found that physicians often advise patients to undergo more preventive screenings than they get themselves. This could be pure self-interest, as they receive compensation for referrals or want to deflect liability. But many “innocent” explanations also come to mind. "Just as the proverbial cobbler's children go shoeless, perhaps these experts give good advice about screenings but procrastinate getting screened themselves."

A recent meta-analysis of surrogate choices found that decision-makers are more cautious when choosing for other people rather than for themselves. But this asymmetry came only into the picture when losses were at stake. "Choices for others are more cautious only when there is potential to incur losses on others, rather than just incurring uncertain amounts of gain." This finding is not simply an instance of loss aversion, which refers to the fact that a fixed loss (say of $ 100) causes us greater grief than the same profit would bring joy to us. We are apparently more loss averse when choosing for others.

If you look at individual studies that examine surrogate choices you find a revealing pattern: Choosers strive to avoid negative outcomes more than they strive to seek positive outcomes for the recipients. For example, in one study, the sure option was always a gain or loss of £3 and the gamble options ranged from £0 to £6. Another study used a scenario in which subjects had to invest an inheritance either for themselves or for another family member. If you make such choices for yourself, you are simultaneously attracted by the imagined pleasures of a potential win and pushed off by the threat of a forfeiture.

But when we choose for others, we are blind in one eye: There is a quirk in our nature that makes it much more easy for us to compassionately empathize with our fellow human's pains and sorrows than to rejoice in their happiness and gains. This makes sense, evolutionary: Our empathy is primarily an emergency program. The perception of others' sorrow seizes us involuntarily and inspires us to improve their lot. But there is little reason to work for someone who is already in a state of bliss. See also: The trench that separates us from the happiness of other people

"It is an intuitive everyday experience that happiness of other people lets us largely cold," say psychologists Edward B. Royzman and Rahul Kumarb of the University of Pennsylvania. The omission in our affective life corresponds to a gap in the languages of the world. We Germans have a word for "sympathetic joy"; it is called “Mitfreude” (literally “With Joy”), but it is not a regular term and isn’t even listed in most dictionaries.

So one important reason that losses might outweigh foregone gains more acutely when deciding for others is the limited capacity for sympathetic joy - the positive emotion associated with observing others’ good fortune. Sympathy for others’ losses is a more powerful emotion than happiness for others’ (potential) gains, and thus people may be prone to weighting gains and losses differently when choosing for others than when choosing for themselves.

Advice vs. Choice
Shared publiclyView activity