From a young age, people are taught the virtue of neighborly love. But psychologists from the University of Lincoln in the UK recently found that “love thy neighbor” may be something we’re naturally predisposed to do, Phys.org reports.

The researchers have yet to have their study, which was presented at the 2012 Society of the Advancement of Behavioral Economics Conference in Spain, reviewed, but their findings indicated that people tend to be reluctant to punish people who are standing right next to them.

The study involved the analysis of contestants in the UK franchise of The Weakest Link, which was aired on the BBC. Lead researcher Paul Goddard, who is a senior lecturer at the University of Lincoln School of Psychology, explained that when it was clear which contestant performed the worst, this bias was not exhibited. But when there was no agreement as to who was the weakest link and contestants had to make their own judgments, they exhibited what the researchers called the neighbor avoidance effect, in which contestants were very reluctant to vote the people standing next to them off the show. Instead, they tended to choose contestants standing farther away from them.

According to Phys.org, “The researchers said their observations drew parallels from a controversial social psychology experiment conducted in the 1960s. In this experiment, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram found people were more likely to punish people with an electric shock if they were in another room. If people were located in the same room, however, they were more reluctant to administer this punishment.”

This study may explain why it is easier to badmouth people when they aren’t present and why you can allow resentments against people you don’t see often fester when you would forgive those you meet on a daily basis for the same transgression. It also means that you may have to work harder to place yourself in the shoes of someone you don’t see a lot of—or worse, someone you don’t even know. Still, it’s important to remember that when you were told to love thy neighbor, it wasn’t met literally. And it’s just as vital to spread joy and kindness to those you don’t know as it is to those close to you.


(Screencap from Fairly Legal courtesy of Universal Cable Productions)

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