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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Pure Altruism?

Brain61907When I presented my colleagues Bill Harbaugh, Dan Burghart, and Ulrich Mayr's research recently, the title I chose, "Paying Taxes Can Make Citizens Happy," was unfortunate since it diverted attention from the main point of the research. A column by John Tierney in today's New York Times provides another chance to highlight the important results from the work.

The big finding in the research is not that individuals enjoy paying taxes, though that certainly captured the headlines. Instead the result to pay attention to is the finding that we may be motivated by pure altruism, though as noted at the end, the concept of pure altruism is trickier to define than it might seem:

Taxes a Pleasure? Check the Brain Scan, by John Tierney, NY Times: The University of Oregon announced a new piece of research last week with a startling headline: “Paying taxes, according to the brain, can bring satisfaction.”

Could this be true? The research is in the new issue of Science, so it’s got the right pedigree, but still. ...

Before any campaign strategists start poring over brain-scan data in the paper, let me temper the happy news. First, this study did not exactly involve a nationally representative sample of taxpayers. The sample consisted of 19 female students at the University of Oregon. And they were not exactly paying taxes as the T-word is understood on the campaign trail.

It is a fascinating bit of research, not so much for its political implications but for what it reveals about humans’ compulsion to be nice.

We preach altruism to our children and occasionally even practice it ourselves. ... We are so convinced of our goodness that we recoil at the philosophers and social scientists who have come up with less uplifting explanations for our behavior. (What is it with these nasty academics?)

Kant considered acts motivated by sympathy as not praiseworthy, because they make the do-gooder feel better. Psychologists have similarly argued that “empathy altruism” is ultimately selfish, because of the emotional benefits it provides to the giver.

The sociobiologist Robert Trivers worked out the mathematics of “reciprocal altruism,” whereby our urge to be nice ultimately serves to propagate our genes by inducing others to cooperate with us. ...

Some economists have attributed altruism to the “warm glow” effect — the pleasurable feeling of ... basking in public admiration. They’ve argued that there is no such thing as “pure altruism.” But now the pure variety has been spotted in the brains of students, at least according to the new paper by a psychologist, Ulrich Mayr, and two economists, William T. Harbaugh and Daniel R. Burghart, all at the University of Oregon.

Their experiment was drawn up to remove some of the usual incentives for being charitable like the fear of looking stingy or the prestige of being named in the program of a charity dinner. Each student was given $100 and told that nobody would know how much of it she chose to keep or give away, not even the researchers who enlisted her in the experiment and scanned her brain. ...

The brain responses were measured by a functional M.R.I. machine as a series of transactions occurred. Sometimes the student had to choose whether to donate some of her cash to a local food bank. Sometimes a tax was levied that sent her money to the food bank without her approval. Sometimes she received extra money, and sometimes the food bank received money without any of it coming from her.

Sure enough, when the typical student chose to donate to the food bank, she was rewarded with that warm glow: increased activity in the same ancient areas of the brain — the caudate, nucleus accumbens and insula — that respond when you eat a sweet dessert or receive money. But these pleasure centers were also activated, albeit not as much, when she was forced to pay a tax to the food bank.

This doesn’t mean that the student, or anyone else, would necessarily enjoy writing a check to the Internal Revenue Service that would be spent on plenty of programs less appealing than a food bank. It is more like the tax collected by a state lottery that dedicates its profits to schools. (And you can see why the lotteries work so well on the brain — they are stimulating greed and altruism at the same time.)

But the results do bolster the case for “pure altruism,” because the student paying the tax could not take personal credit for deciding to feed the hungry. ...

“The most surprising result is that these basic pleasure centers in the brain don’t respond only to what’s good for yourself,” said Dr. Mayr, the psychologist. “They also seem to be tracking what’s good for other people, and this occurs even when the subjects don’t have a say in what happens.”

Dr. Harbaugh ... said the results did not resolve the debate over whether to help the needy with public programs or private charity. “There’s something for both sides here,” he said. “We’re showing that paying taxes does produce a neural reward. But we’re showing that the neural reward is even higher when you have voluntary giving.”

Of course, not everyone receives the same neural rewards from giving. The researchers divided their subjects into “egoists” and “altruists,” according to whether their brains registered more pleasure receiving money themselves or more pleasure watching money go to the charity.

There were almost equal numbers of egoists and altruists, and their brain scans correlated with their altruistic behavior. The altruists chose to donate $20 on average, while the egoists gave just $11. Unfortunately, the researchers did not ask the students in either group for their political preferences, so we cannot even begin to speculate who is stingier, Democrats or Republicans.

The most intriguing results were the ones from two of the experimental subjects, students whose brain scans made them definite egoists yet who were also among the most generous in donating. You could dismiss them as statistical outliers, but I like to think we have finally spotted the creature dismissed by so many scholars as myth.

These two women enjoyed no neural reward from charity — their brains didn’t get enough of a warm glow to compensate for the pain of parting with their money — yet they made anonymous donations anyway. Diogenes, we may not have found an honest man, but we do seem to have located a couple of true altruists. Either that or two determined masochists.

Continuing in Tierney Labs, Bill and Urlich have a question for you:

The Altruist’s Paradox: Should It Hurt to Be Nice?, by John Tierney: In my Findings column, I report the possible sighting of a “true altruist,”...

Of course, you may already think you’ve seen one noble, unselfish, unstintingly generous individual — in your mirror. But defining selflessness is tricky, particularly once you start looking at brain scans of people during acts of charity, as was done in the experiment at the University of Oregon. Many of the people in the experiment seemed to get a personal reward from charity toward others. Now two of the Oregon researchers — Ulrich Mayr, a psychologist, and William Harbaugh, an economist — have a question for you to consider:

In our study, participants’ pleasure areas were activated when a charity received money. For some, this in itself would count as an indication of altruism, simply because it indicates a motive that is fulfilled by somebody else’s wellbeing.

Not, however for people who believe, as some philosophers do, that an action is truly altruistic only if it is directed at others’ wellbeing as the ultimate goal, not at deriving pleasure for oneself (see the Kant reference in John’s column). If we actually do possess a basic capacity for getting pleasure out of others’ wellbeing, this creates a slightly paradoxical situation for such philosophical criteria for what is and what is not true altruism.

On the one hand, the capacity for experiencing “altruistic pleasure” is, as our results indicate, one important reason why people can produce acts that at least on the surface appear to be altruistic (and that have all the positive — we hope — consequences of true altruistic acts).

On the other hand, for people who possess this capacity it would be impossible to ever meet the strict criterion for true altruism (unless they somehow actively suppress their altruistic pleasure and then behave altruistically nevertheless). Obviously, we are getting into very academic arguments here.

A more pragmatic question to ask is: In what kind of world would we want to live? The philosopher’s ideal where people might occasionally produce random acts of kindness, but with a pained look on their face? Or one in which evolution, blissfully ignorant of philosophical arguments, has linked altruism with pleasure, thereby making altruistic acts just a little bit easier for us?

So which world would you rather live in? And, without the benefit of a brain scan, what do you think is your chief motivation in making charitable donations? Do you give because it makes you feel good, or because you (in accordance with Kant’s ideal of praiseworthy altruism) are painfully carrying out your duty?

If you'd like to respond, Bill and Dan will be reading your comments. [Bill is also the curator of the world's largest scientifically accurate fabric brain art museum.]

    Posted by on Tuesday, June 19, 2007 at 12:15 AM in Economics, Science, University of Oregon | Permalink  TrackBack (1)  Comments (37)


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