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Proof Positive: The Spirit of Altruism Thrives at CalArts


In an informal experiment in Michael Bryant’s class, CalArts students showed high levels of altruism compared to students at another university in a similar experiment.

A core value for CalArts as an institution has always been that its community and environment both foster creative freedom and collaboration among students, and also engender a culture of respect and care for others. Recently, a faculty member conducted an informal scientific study to determine whether or not current students upheld the value of altruism.

Replicating a Social Sciences Experiment at CalArts

Biologist and statistician Michael Bryant, associate dean and a faculty member in the School of Critical Studies, engaged the students in one of his science classes in a simple social sciences experiment. He replicated part of a study conducted by researchers at a Canadian university, which demonstrated that students generally acted selfishly in a standard experiment that tested individuals’ willingness to give money to strangers. This falls in line with theories of evolutionary biology and genetics, which maintain that selfish traits generally promote survival and are therefore predominant. Human beings, of course, are often kind, and biologists and social scientists are still trying to figure out why.

Surprising Results: CalArtians' Generosity Counters Expectations and Theory

Bryant gave student participants envelopes, each holding 10 quarters. They were then sent across campus to approach random students, hand them an envelope, and tell them that they could keep all of the money or leave some behind. The student investigators told them that any money that they didn’t keep would go to an anonymous student located at another part of the campus.

“Theory would predict that all of the students would keep all of the money,” Bryant says. In the Canadian experiment, nearly 40% of subjects kept all of the money. But at CalArts, Bryant found that the reverse was true. More than half of the students gave back most of the money, and in 35% of the exchanges, the students gave back all of the money so that another student would benefit.

“If you assume that the evolutionary argument informs how people act, the results make no sense,” Bryant says. “So, why are CalArts students so altruistic?”

Since CalArts is a small community, Bryant says, perhaps the students felt that they might know the anonymous student across campus to whom most gave money. Or maybe the students who were tested reflect an upbringing by parents who value acts of charity. “It could be something mundane. Maybe CalArts students don’t like quarters,” Bryant says. “In the end, we have no idea why.”

A CalArts Climate of Collaboration

But it’s also possible that the results reflect another aspect of the CalArts culture: the climate of collaboration. In certain disciplines at CalArts, like theater and music, students regularly rely on their peers to help them complete projects. “CalArts provides the opportunities for artists to work together and that reciprocity is good,” Bryant says. “You don’t have to walk far until you’re surrounded by people who not only have another skill set, but they’re excellent at it.

“Helping others complete projects is not about money or fame,” Bryant says. “It’s about the art. So maybe artists are more empathetic.”

Last edited by rsdavid on May 07, 2014
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