Kind Actions Make People Feel Good Even When They Do Not Benefit

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes was famous (infamous?) for arguing that human beings necessarily always act in their own self-interest. According to Hobbes, every action a human takes is ultimately motivated by a desire to benefit one’s self.

Consequently, in Hobbes’ view, any sort of satisfaction a person gains from an action is directly related to how much that action benefits them. However, a recent neuroimaging study conducted by a team of neuroscientists based in Sussex seems to imply that, despite the wisdom of Hobbes, people seem to reap the benefits of acting kindly even when there is nothing for them to gain.

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The study, published in the journal NeuroImage, compared findings over 36 studies from nearly a decade of neuroimaging research done on decision making. The meta-analysis determined that giving to others activates reward circuits in the brain, even when the giver gains nothing of extrinsic value from the transaction. These reward circuits are responsible for the feeling of satisfaction and happiness we get from giving. The study found that “strategic” decisions, decisions made where the giver has a perceived benefit to their giving, and “altruistic” decisions, decisions where the subject did not expect to receive anything in return,  were both associated with neural activation in common reward circuits. However, compared to strategic decisions, altruistic decisions were associated with increased activity in the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, an area associated with empathetic responses, and emotional processing, The fact that the neural correlates of altruistic decisions are unique indicates that there is something special about giving when the only reward is a warm glow.

Neural Mechanisms Of Decision Making

Decision making in humans is a complex process and so involve a number of overlapping and interconnected neural mechanisms. However, most higher level decisions processes are related to the activity of the pre-frontal cortex, so the majority of the studies drawn from for the meta-analysis focused primarily on fMRI readings of the prefrontal cortex during decisions procedures with differing motivations. The researchers define an “altruistic” giving as one that is not motivated by perceived extrinsic gain, but by intrinsic rewards such as a “warm glow,” relief of empathetic concern, or adherence to a moral code. “Strategic” giving is defined as a giving process motivated by a perceived extrinsic reward; motivations like a desire to avoid punishment, enhanced gain from cooperation, or reciprocity of the recipient.

One of the main differences between altruistic and strategic giving is the timeline of receiving benefits. For altruistic decisions, goal-attainment motivated by intrinsic rewards begins almost immediately. As such, intrinsic rewards are seen as more certain than extrinsic rewards. The reward from strategic giving, on the other hand, is modulated by the uncertainty of benefits and goal-attainment occurs later. Additionally, the use of a theory of mind by decisions makers, making inferences about the mental state of those they give to, differ between altruistic and strategic giving.

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The meta-analysis proceeded by finding fMRI research done on subjects when in situations of strategic and altruistic giving. Overall, the meta-analysis pulled data from 36 different studies, 21 of those studies on fMRI readings of altruistic giving situations and 15 on data from strategic giving situations. The main goal was to find similarities or differences in the neurocognitive mechanisms of altruistic giving and strategic giving.

Analyzing the data revealed that both altruistic and strategic decisions were associated with increased activation in similar parts of the thalamus, occipital and parietal lobes. These regions are established as main components of the brains reward and value network. The firing of similar neural mechanisms indicates that the rewards from prosocial strategic and altruistic giving utilize a number of the same core mechanisms. In contrast, the study reported that neural mechanisms implicated in selfish decision making had little overlap with regions implicated in strategic and altruistic giving.

With respect to altruistic giving, the meta-analysis seems to imply that a person receives the same type of neural reward for behaving altruistically as they do for giving strategically. Thus it is highly likely that strategic and altruistic giving can be complementary; a person can be motivated by both extrinsic benefit and intrinsic benefit. Interaction of different neural modules for altruistic and strategic giving could explain why extrinsic incentives have been shown to “crowd out” intrinsic motivations, or how both extrinsic and intrinsic motivations are summed together.

Additionally, altruistic giving showed a neural profile that differed from that of strategic giving, with more activation in the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex and the temporoparietal junction. This finding is key, as some theories of decision making hold that altruistic giving is simply a subset of strategic giving. The fact that altruistic giving has been shown to activate parts of the brain not implicated in strategic giving indicates that the former is not a subset of the latter and that altruistic giving cannot be completely subsumed under a model of strategic giving. In other words, our brains seem to have neural networks tailored specifically for giving in the absence of perceived personal benefit, and mechanisms that reinforce that kind of pro-social behavior. The existence of such neural mechanisms would make sense in the context of human evolution, as prosocial behavior is a nifty evolutionary strategy for human survival and flourishing.

Understanding the neural mechanisms underlying prosocial behavior is important. Knowing how different kinds of motivations determine which kinds of actions could guide groups in stimulating prosocial behavior in society. For example, knowing that the neural correlates of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators can interact and crowd each other out, a charity organization may be careful to not to send out token gifts to donators. The reception of a gift could change the donator’s frame of decision making from an altruistic one to a transactional/strategic one.

Moreover, such a metanalysis seems to cast some doubt over the pronouncements of philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, who argue everything humans do is motivated by self-interest. As it turns out, humans are motivated by more than self-interest and receive the benefits of acting kindly even when there is nothing in it for them. With humans, sometimes goodness itself is reward enough.

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