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.