MeThink: Altruism, what it takes to make yourself to feel good?

Altruism, (of what I understand from my limited reading) is quite a popular topic in evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and now it is extending to economics.

In this article, a group of neuroscientist and economist are working together to find out how people feel on charity act. The experiment’s details:

The researchers recruited 19 female students and placed them in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines to monitor the caudate nucleus and the nucleus accumbens, ancient regions of the brain, which produce feelings of pleasure and fulfillment. Each student participated in an economic game centered on charitable giving. They first received $100 in cold hard cash and were told any money left at the end of the study was theirs to keep. They then learned about a local food bank that would benefit from any donations from their account.

The volunteers then watched a screen as a computer program decided what to do with their money. Sometimes students could choose whether to give to the food bank. Other times, the computer “taxed” their account, donating money automatically to the food bank. And, once in a while, money would magically appear, either in their account or in the food bank’s coffers.

Among their findings:

  1. Most subjects experienced the “warm glow” effect after voluntarily giving money.
  2. The pleasure zones of some volunteers’ brains lit up when the food bank received money, even if the volunteers were being taxed. This group of people is called “pure altruism”, whereby they may have positive emotions wash over them just from witnessing good deeds.
  3. When these subjects saw the computer randomly place money into the account of the food bank, they had a stronger positive reaction than when their own funds suddenly increased.

Finding#1 is not a big surprise for it has been quite a textbook like explanation by social psychologist on the reasoning why people behave altruisically.

Finding#2 is quite a surprise in the sense that as long as the goal/end is good, the means/methods do not matter to the some of volunteers/subjects themselves, even though it was done involuntarily. May be I am not hardwired as the pure altruism, but I can’t quite get the idea because I am more inclined to “I will donate happily by my own will, but I am definitely distasting it if I have to donate involutanrily”. One of my wild thought is that: what will happen if that “pure altruism” group of people petition to government to make it a rule to make everyone to donate? But of course for this hypothetical question to take place, it would be nice to find out do the people feel such way? May be something like the experiment designed in such a way to see is there any significant difference on the impact of brain glowing (?) between:

a) Volunteer A sees the money taxed and gave involuntarily to charity.

b) Volunteer A sees the money taxed on a group of people (e.g. volunteer B, C and D) and gave it to charity.

Finding#3 is even more bizzare, but at least harmless compared to finding#2 group, IMHO.

I find that this experiment is very interesting. Interesting in the sense that I can think of a lot of “what if” scenarios for it. The authors were already suggesting to study other groups like male, the poor or other country. My 2 cents worth suggestion include:

1) as suggested above, seeing how the subjects feel if other’s money has been involuntarily given to charity/good cause (this I am very interested to know 😉 ).

2) the effectiveness or nature of the charity group (environmental vs education vs disease etc).

3) the amount of money involved, real or imagined.

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