The Frontal Cortex

Charity is Social

There’s a new and very timely paper out this week that looks at the cortical mechanics of charitable giving. While it’s been known for a few years that giving away money activates the dopamine reward pathway – that’s why doing good feels good – this latest paper attempted to investigate the philanthropic system in detail. In a world full of need, how do we choose where to give?

The larger goal of the scientists was to better understand a core feature of the human brain, which is the ability to assign value to alternatives. How do we know that X is better than Y? How does the cacophony of mental activity – a confusing swirl of experience, memory and sensation – get transformed into a neat computational signal, which allows us to automatically assess our options? Here are the Caltech neuroeconomists, laying out their agenda:

Donations to charity represent a complex social decision in which the benefits for the giver are abstract and indirect, unlike decisions involving primary reward or money where the benefit is concrete. Although two previous neuroimaging studies of charitable giving have reported activity in regions that respond to primary reward, neither addressed the questions of what neural networks provide the input used to compute values. In the case of decisions over primary rewards (e.g., choosing which juice to drink), the value is likely to be influenced by sensory factors such as expected taste and by somatic states such as thirst. On the other hand, computing the value of a charitable donation might require inputs from areas involved in social cognition. For example, because giving to charity involves sacrificing resources for the benefit of others, these decisions are likely to require a shift in attention away from the subject’s own state to focus on the needs of others. In addition, the value that we assign to addressing the needs of others might depend on how much empathy we feel for them.

The experiment itself was straightforward. Twenty-two female subjects were given $100 to spend in the fMRI machine on various charities; whatever money they didn’t spend was theirs to keep.(In addition, subjects were told that their donations to charity would be matched by a separate pool of research funds. Thus, when a subject donated $25 from her endowment, the charity received $50. So this investigation into altruism was itself altruistic.) The subjects then completed 150 trials in the scanner, as they decided how much to donate to 75 different charitable organizations, from the Brain Tumor Society to the Los Angeles Opera. (Before the scanning, the women were asked to rate the charity on a scale of “deservingness” and its “closeness to them,” which was defined as the likelihood that someone they knew would directly benefit from its mission.)

What did the fMRI machine reveal? The “value” of a charitable donation was reflected in the activity of a brain area called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), a bit of tissue a few inches behind the forehead. Furthermore, the VMPFC seemed to be making its computations by summing the responses of a variety of other “primary areas,” such as the anterior insula and posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC), both of which are associated with aspects of social cognition. (The insula has been linked to feelings of empathy, while the pSTC is in charge of perceiving agency in others.)

The real question, of course, is what this scanning experiment can teach us about the psychology of charity, apart from giving us a few new acronyms to reference. Here’s Hare, et. al.:

One basic hypothesis that has been proposed in behavioral economics is that the amount given to a charity depends solely on the giver’s preferences for that donation. The functional connectivity data presented here suggest that social cognition capabilities might also play a role in determining the size of the donation, perhaps by influencing how the value of giving (i.e., the preferences) are computed at the time of the decision. For example, a subject who does not activate the insula might end up giving a small donation because she does not generate the empathy necessary to construct such a preference. Similarly, a subject who does not activate pSTC with sufficient strength might make a small donation, not because she is indifferent to the charity’s beneficiaries when she is able to take their perspective, but because she has difficulty focusing her attention on others.

The point, then, is that charitable donations aren’t purely rational calculations. Instead, our decisions are deeply influenced by the quirky social machinery of the brain, which is influenced by variables like empathy (How close do we feel to the beneficiaries of the good cause?) and the ability to detect agency (Does the charity make us think of other people?). This helps explain the effect I blogged about yesterday, or why abstract appeals tend to be less compelling than concrete examples of individual suffering. When it comes to altruism, specificity beats scope, if only because the decision to give is inherently social.

I think this research also helps explain why social media like Facebook, Twitter, etc. always seem to become extra relevant during crises and disasters. While the platforms were designed to convey social banalities, they can also serve as vessels of empathy, as people forward along the latest reports and most resonant stories. It doesn’t matter if the subject is Iranian protests or Haitian refugees – social media makes the tragedy feel closer, more human. And that is what makes the tragedy feel real.

Comments

  1. #1 Julie Dirksen
    January 14, 2010

    The link to the paper requires a login to see the abstract — can you give the citation?

  2. #2 David
    January 14, 2010

    This is bad news for me, I think; I fundraise for public radio. The beneficiaries of our “charitable” work are the listeners themselves–and I put that in quotes because it’s not really framed as charitable work. Pitchers focus on what you and I, individual listeners, get from public radio and TV, and rarely talk about the overall benefit to society–maybe because they don’t think donors will be interested in paying for other people to listen to the radio? Meanwhile, something like around 90% listen guilt-free, never feeling compelled to give a gift.

    On occasion I find a listener with a great testimonial that’s grist for an appeal (one had fond memories of listening to public radio with her dad over long car rides between homes after her parents’ divorce), but most often my appeals are all abstraction, trying to convey the nobility of supporting shareholder-free news and music, the in-group status of being a public radio listener, and finally what you get out of it personally.

    And then, of course, there’s the incentive gifts, which I believe create a little havoc in our donors’ heads–$60 or $75 looks like a lot to pay for a coffee mug, while being a relatively average (even small) annual gift.

    I was reading your book yesterday and I came to the part about confusing people with too much information, and where irrelevant numbers wrongly factored into valuing products.

    I’m a little ashamed to say it, but I started thinking about how I could use this information to influence our average gift. Could I add irrelevant numbers to phone answerer scripts? Like “Thank you…you’re the 127th caller and…” Even worse, could I influence average gift by having volunteers mention the last caller’s pledge who was both female and gave a semi-substantial amount? (I read a study somewhere that doing so increased average gift in both men and women–can’t find the link now, though.)

    Would any of that likely help, or just confuse callers (and maybe lower gifts)? Is it unethical?

    BTW, I first found your blog and book through Radiolab. We don’t carry it on my station but I wish we did. I like it even better than This American Life.

  3. #3 SJA
    January 14, 2010

    This helps explain the effect I blogged about yesterday, or why abstract appeals tend to be less compelling than concrete examples of individual suffering. When it comes to altruism, specificity beats scope, if only because the decision to give is inherently social.

    The experiment you describe doesn’t say or imply anything about the affect that the scope of a tragedy may have on altruism — it especially does not support your strange conclusion that if more people suffer from a tragedy, fewer people will care. If anything, it just suggests that certain proposed social areas of the brain are activated when a person is choosing whether to give to a charity and may influence that decision.

    One basic hypothesis that has been proposed in behavioral economics is that the amount given to a charity depends solely on the giver’s preferences for that donation. The functional connectivity data presented here suggest that social cognition capabilities might also play a role in determining the size of the donation, perhaps by influencing how the value of giving (i.e., the preferences) are computed at the time of the decision. [emphasis added]

    The word “also” is misused here. The idea that “the amount given to a charity depends solely on the giver’s preferences” is consistent with the idea that “the amount given to a charity depends solely on the giver’s preferences, and those preferences are informed by social cognition.” As economists often say, “de gustibus non est disputandum.”

  4. #4 Kevin H
    January 14, 2010

    the paper can be reached by removing the brandice portion of the link:
    http://www.jneurosci.org/cgi/content/abstract/30/2/583

    citation:
    The Journal of Neuroscience, January 13, 2010, 30(2):583-590; doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4089-09.2010

    but it doesn’t appear to be available in pubMed yet.

  5. #5 Pam
    January 14, 2010

    This may seem a bit like nit-picking and perhaps it is, but I think it is relevant. The use of the word sacrifice by the researchers seems misplaced. Webster’s defines sacrifice as – an act of offering to a [deity] something precious; destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else. Yet charitable is defined as – full of love for and goodwill toward others; merciful or kind in judging others. Then by these definitions, charitable donations should not be seen as a sacrifice and furthermore, since charitable actions can be considered as potentially merciful in judging, it seems that the study demonstrates that judging is not actually as removed from donations are we pretend or we would give equally to all charities. Even though I can appreciate the concept of tax deductions for charitable entities, it has always struck me as pretentious charity if one is motivated principally by a material benefit to one’s self.

  6. #6 Kevin H
    January 14, 2010

    @SJA

    I wouldn’t say that these findings say ‘nothing’ about scope effecting giving. They are hardly definitive, but it’s pretty easy to speculate that the insula doesn’t produce as strong of a signal to abstract suffering as it does to specific examples of suffering. I’d be willing to wager that there was a paper out there supporting that idea.

    This next one gets into a bit of a word game, but the whole point of this paper is that CAN start dispute about tastes. Two can agree on the efficacy of a certain charity, but still have an at least partially explainable account of differences in ultimate preference. Of course the question sill arises as to why people process or weight these social signals differently, but we certainly have gained concrete evidence of a variable in human decision making that is not available to pure choice preference tests.

  7. #7 SJA
    January 14, 2010

    The point, then, is that charitable donations aren’t purely rational calculations.

    Did anyone think they were?

  8. #8 SJA
    January 14, 2010

    @Kevin H

    I wouldn’t say that these findings say ‘nothing’ about scope effecting giving. They are hardly definitive, but it’s pretty easy to speculate that the insula doesn’t produce as strong of a signal to abstract suffering as it does to specific examples of suffering. I’d be willing to wager that there was a paper out there supporting that idea.

    Nothing in the experiment suggests that if more people are harmed, other people will empathize less—as Jonah has asserted. It is, however, plausible to say that images evoke stronger reactions than written words, just as smells evoke stronger reactions than images. But this has nothing to do with the number of people harmed. It has everything to do with the senses we use to perceive the harm.

  9. #9 BlueB
    January 14, 2010

    I don’t totally agree… there are people out in the world who have more empathy than others. These individuals can see an image and it will trigger emotions in them so acute that it is as if their own child is in that situation. These people surpass all judgements of race, creed and age – all factors people take into affect when reacting to a “social” crisis. It doesn’t seem likely that they have dysfunctional brains, this study should just say its how some people think about some forms of charity.

    I just started reading your blog after reading your first book, I look forward to reading the second one!

  10. #10 Natasha Friis Saxberg
    January 15, 2010

    Great post, which connects well with a post I just wrote on “Can real time web bring real world change”, also digging into science research indicating that altruism affects the same area in the brain as sex. Which is interesting if communities in the future can be build to motivate altruism rather than egoism.

    In my belief the Facebook, Twitter etc. are centered around the ego, so when supporting Iran or Haiti – it supports our “perfect online image” rather than being real altruism, and therefore not providing real change. Most communities are build to motivate and measure quantitative egocentric behavior, like the number of friends, followers etc. instead of the individuals qualitative impact in a group.

  11. #11 Jun
    January 15, 2010

    I agree with BlueB and would like to point out that there is a risk in presenting neurological research into lay language. Although Mr. Lehrer usually does a very good job in translating research into accessible explanations that one can understand without bench scientific training, there is sometimes a risk to use generalizing terms and suggest that this is how every brain behaves.

    Results that are presented in means and statistical significance in a research study are not the same as implying that the phenomenon is generalizable. People are not lab rats, and even rats show individual variation in behavioral tests. Be careful when you “dumb down” the research because some nuances are lost in translation.

  12. #12 Ray in Seattle
    January 17, 2010

    Does anyone know of a blog where the ideas presented in “How We Decide” are discussed in depth? Thanks in advance for any links.

  13. #13 Tom
    January 18, 2010

    I tried to access the paper, but Brandeis apparently only wants students. Is there another way to read this? or could we get a citation?

  14. #14 Michael
    January 18, 2010

    Would anonymous donations have the same effect on the brain? An anonymous donation seems to be an act that removes the public/social aspect of charity.

  15. #15 meryl
    January 19, 2010

    Genuine compassion motivates greater compassion.

    My puppy suffered a heart attack recently (arising from a congenital condition). When I brought her to the vet office, and a dismay prognosis was made, I’d wept quietly but openly.

    I am a mature 40 years old woman, well groomed, well heeled.
    To see a person like me weeping publicly over a suffering puppy, throwing self image to the pits, seemed to have motivated empathy on a massive scale.

    The vet started to rub her eyes, it was unprofessional to cry, but she did. The other pet owners got misty-eyed. The receptionists offered their best assistence.

    I firmly believe that if your compassion is genuine, you will motivate greater compassion.

    You can’t sing the blues without a soul. And if you dare to show your compassionate soul egolessly to all, some will definitely be inspired to reach into their hearts and pull out their compassion in return.

    Enjoy enjoy enjoy

  16. #16 David J. Leroy
    January 22, 2010

    If you cite a paper and we can not get to read it, hmmm…. so much for that “everything should be free guy” Anderson somebody ???

    Still would like to read it

  17. #17 Bob Decker
    April 23, 2010

    Individual stories certainly make a huge difference in the result of appeals. We make another observation and it is confirmed by several other small charities. When a disaster like the earthquake in Haiti strike, many people shift their charitable giving from the charities and churches they supported for years, to respond to the disaster of the day. There also is the desire to be socially acceptable to our friends and say, “Oh yes – I sent them money, too.”

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