Cookies on this website

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Accept all cookies' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. If you click 'Reject all non-essential cookies' only necessary cookies providing core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility will be enabled. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

People show empathic responses to others' pain, yet how they choose to apportion pain between themselves and others is not well understood. To address this question, we observed choices to reapportion social allocations of painful stimuli and, for comparison, also elicited equivalent choices with money. On average people sought to equalize allocations of both pain and money, in a manner which indicated that inequality carried an increasing marginal cost. Preferences for pain were more altruistic than for money, with several participants assigning more than half the pain to themselves. Our data indicate that, given concern for others, the fundamental principle of diminishing marginal utility motivates spreading costs across individuals. A model incorporating this assumption outperformed existing models of social utility in explaining the data. By implementing selected allocations for real, we also found that while inequality per se did not influence pain perception, altruistic behavior had an intrinsic analgesic effect for the recipient.

Original publication




Journal article


Sci Rep

Publication Date





Adult, Altruism, Choice Behavior, Empathy, Female, Humans, Male, Models, Psychological, Pain