The Frontal Cortex

Finding Altruism

Given recent inane comments about the immateriality of altruism by a certain neurosurgeon, I thought this recent article on the neural underpinnings of “pure altruism” might be of interest:

You don’t need to donate to charity to feel all warm inside. Researchers have found that even when money is taken from some people involuntarily, they feel good about the transaction, as long as the funds go to a good cause. The findings may force economists to rethink just what guides our response to taxes and other financial decisions.

The behavior under the microscope is altruism, which refers to concern for the well-being of others. Sometimes this manifests as a “warm glow” associated with the act of giving. In that case, economists speculate, the act is not entirely selfless because the giver makes the donation in order to feel good. But economists have also proposed that not all warm glows are self-interested. Some people may have positive emotions wash over them just from witnessing good deeds. This is called “pure altruism,” and it may be motivating society’s biggest givers.

Now a group of neuroscientists and economists at the University of Oregon, Eugene, has teamed up to get inside the heads of charitable citizens. 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.

I should also note that the study is also pretty fascinating, irrespective of Dr. Egnor’s silliness. The idea that some people are wired for “pure altruism” is a totally unexpected concept. How long before we find the responsible polymorphism?


  1. #1 _Arthur
    June 15, 2007

    How can your expect Egnor to keep up with Neuro-scientific research ? He’s way too busy in his own field.

  2. #2 Renee
    June 15, 2007

    This isn’t necessarily a wiring for “pure altruism.” It is likely a component for a weighing mechanism. For instance, the thought of giving a big wedding gift gives you pleasure, but the thought of going hungry for a month causes you discomfort. The discomfort outweighs the pleasure, so you go for a slightly smaller gift where the benefits, psychologically, outweighs the cost.

    Most likely, in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, such a psychological calculation matches the actual costs and benefits of the action fairly well. So, for instance, performing charitable works in a hunter gather society of about 50 people would have a large benefit, equivalent to the psychological pleasure of performing it.

    Of course, today, a lot of altruism has a disproportionate amount of pleasure for the benefit gained to the individual, because in such a large society, anonymity makes the benefits of being seen as a charitable person a lot more dilute.

  3. #3 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    June 15, 2007

    Finding Altruism

    Check under the sofa cushions. When I’m searching for something, that’s where it usually turns up.

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