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Open Access Publications from the University of California

People think of others as more prosocial when they are motivated by aesthetic goals vs. instrumental goals


People expect others to take efficient paths toward goals. Inefficiency changes how we categorize actions, leading us to see actions as play (Chu & Schulz, 2020), or as movements performed for their own intrinsic value (Schachner & Carey, 2013). Here we find that performing actions for their own value (e.g., aesthetic value), versus for instrumental purposes, provides social information about others. In a pre-registered experiment (N=360), participants judged which character in a pair was more compassionate, or more selfish/manipulative. For one key pair (among distractors), both characters performed the same activity (music, painting, eating, exercising, math, being in nature), and we manipulated why: Either for its own aesthetic value, or as a means-to-an-end (instrumental value). Across all activities, aesthetically-motivated characters were judged as more compassionate and less selfish/manipulative than instrumentally-motivated characters (p’s<0.01). Aesthetically-motivated behavior may signal others’ emotionality moreso than instrumentally-motivated activities, driving inferences about prosociality.

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