The Joy of Giving vs. the Pain of Buying

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by: Roger Dooley

We’ve covered the concept of buying pain here frequently, but haven’t seen much about how giving away money affects the brain. Two new studies shed some light on the neuroscience of charity and altruism. These studies indicate that the cerebral cortex, the area of the brain responsible for our most advanced cognitive functions, is involved in altruistic behavior.

One study, led by Jordan Grafman, allowed subjects to win money in the course of a game and choose whether to accept a payout or donate the winnings. From Inner Workings Of The Magnanimous Mind: Why It Feels Good To Be Altruistic (Science Daily):

It turned out that a similar pattern of brain activity was seen when subjects chose either to donate or take a payoff. Both types of decisions were associated with heightened activity in parts of the midbrain, a region deep in the brain that is known to be involved in primal desires (such as food and sex) and the satisfaction of them. This result provides the first evidence that the “joy of giving” has an anatomical basis in the brain – surprisingly, one that is shared with selfish longings and rewards.

Jordan Grafman, Ph.D., the scientist who led the work and a senior investigator in the intramural research division of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), was more interested by what happened when subjects donated, or opposed donation, at a cost to themselves. In either case, an area of the brain toward the forehead, known as the anterior prefrontal cortex, lit up. When Dr. Grafman and his team asked subjects to rate their charitable involvement in everyday life, he found that those with the highest ratings also had the highest level of activity in the prefrontal cortex.

Separately, new work by Scott Huettel, a neuroscientist and NINDS grantee at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, Meanwhile, a study in Nature Neuroscience** connects altruism to the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC), an area of the brain believed to help us to perceive the intention of actions by someone or something else.

About 45 subjects were asked to play a computerized reaction time game or, on some trials, to simply watch as the computer played it. Faster reactions earned money for the subject or for a charity, and subjects were told at the beginning of each trial where their earnings would go. They also completed assessment scales designed to measure their altruism in real-world situations.

Among subjects who scored high on the altruism scale, the pSTC became more active during “watching” sessions and less active during “playing” sessions. Moreover, this link between pSTC activation and watching was strongest when the charity, not the subject, was designated to receive the game’s winnings. Among low-altruism subjects, pSTC activation was not significantly altered by the conditions of the game – that is, whether the subject played or watched, and who received the winnings.

The results suggest that altruism depends on – and may have evolved from – the brain’s ability to perform the relatively low-level perceptual task of attributing actions to others…

Although his study and Dr. Grafman’s study link altruism to different brain regions, Dr. Huettel sees the results as complementary rather than contradictory. “There are certain to be multiple mechanisms that contribute to altruism, both in individuals and over evolutionary time,” he said.

We previously reported on Huettel’s continuing altruism research in Social Perceptions and Altruism Research. At the moment, it’s hard to see major neuromarketing implications of this work, even for non-profit marketers. We certainly know that some individuals are more altruistic than others, and it’s not surprising that both behavior and brain activation levels differ. If anything, the fact that the two sets of researchers found significant activity related to altruism in two different areas of the brain illustrates the challenges that face neuromarketing – some have speculated about a “buy button” in the brain, and this work makes it clear there’s no simple “give button.”

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