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Computational Model Suggests Even Altruistic Behaviour is Based on Predictions of Personal Gain

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Posted August 4, 2015

Love, compassion, sacrifice, generosity, kindness – these are all things people value for their alleged directedness towards the generalised Other, or, in other words, for their altruistic concern for our fellow man.

“Are we selfish or altruistic?” is a question people have been asking themselves for centuries – if not millennia. Could it be, however, that both of these mental dispositions collapse into one another, with “enlightened” egoists seeing that care for other people benefits themselves, and altruists recognising that selfless behaviour is simply a type of selfishness? Image credit: Chi King via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0.

“Are we selfish or altruistic?” is a question people have been asking themselves for centuries – if not millennia. Could it be, however, that both of these mental dispositions collapse into one another, with “enlightened” egoists seeing that care for other people benefits themselves, and altruists recognising that selfless behaviour is simply a type of selfishness? Image credit: Chi King via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0.

In philosophy and psychology, however, the question of altruism is not so clear-cut. Over the years, there have been many, at least seemingly, conflicting accounts of what motivates our various decisions. For instance, some think humans are innately selfish and there isn’t much that could be done about it; others maintain that we are, to the contrary, pro-social by nature and only commit selfish acts when we think we can get away with them; others still, claim that the only way we can override our self-seeking inclinations is through willpower.

So, who – if anyone – is right? While it’s still too early to proclaim any of the competing hypotheses as the “winner”, a new study in the science journal Neuron suggests that even our seemingly selfless behaviours can be traced back to un- or pre-conscious calculations of personal gain. As it turns out, the more awareness we have of a particular action’s potential benefit to another person, and the less we have to sacrifice for it, the more likely we are to be generous. On the flip side, the less personal gratification we seen on the horizon, the less inclined we feel to help someone out.

In the study, over 50 participants were hooked up to an fMRI machine as they made choices while playing the so-called Dictator Game, which requires players to choose between actions that either result in their own economic gain, in a financial reward for another person, or some combination of the two. For example, the subject might be asked to sacrifice $25 so that the other person might gain $100. If the proposal was rejected there was a default award of $50 for each. To keep the decision making simple, subjects were given a four-second limit in which to make their choices.

As it transpired, the participants were, on average, found to sacrifice money to help out the other person around 21 percent of the time – and this even though the identity of the recipient was unknown to the giver.

Recorded fMRI scans of the participants’ brains suggested that different brain areas represent one’s own interests and those of the other. Self-oriented values correlated with activity in the ventral striatum, an area linked to basic reward processing, while Other-oriented values correlated with activation of the temporoparietal junction, which has been implicated in empathy.

According to the study lead author Cendri Hutcherson, the satisfaction of selfless giving comes from knowing that you only had to give a little to help someone out a lot. To put it differently, the feeling of being “a good person” is only worth it if it doesn’t cost us too much.

“If we can highlight the utility of an action that is fairly trivial for ourselves – for example, the notion that for the price of a cup of coffee you can help a starving child – the model predicts that people will be more likely to behave generously. But if you have to give up a lot to give another person only a small benefit, that’s not so motivating. The satisfaction to the giver has to be worth the sacrifice.”

The research team believes studies like the present one can help identify more ways we can make people act generously, and have broader applications in many areas of human behaviour, including charitable giving, military training and criminal rehabilitation, to name a few.

Sources: study abstract, caltech.edu.

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