Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Humans Love Charity

For decades, economists have thought that humans are self-interested to the detriment of their fellow man. New scientific findings about the brain call that assumption into question.

Specifically, the team found that the reward centers in the human brain respond more strongly when a poor person receives a financial reward than when a rich person does. The surprising thing? This activity pattern holds true even if the brain being looked at is in the rich person's head, rather than the poor person's.

In the experiment, half the participants were given $50 at the beginning of the study, and half were given nothing.

"People who started out poor had a stronger brain reaction to things that gave them money, and essentially no reaction to money going to another person," Camerer says. "By itself, that wasn't too surprising."

What was surprising was the other side of the coin. "In the experiment, people who started out rich had a stronger reaction to other people getting money than to themselves getting money," Camerer explains. "In other words, their brains liked it when others got money more than they liked it when they themselves got money."

"We now know that these areas are not just self-interested," adds O'Doherty. "They don't exclusively respond to the rewards that one gets as an individual, but also respond to the prospect of other individuals obtaining a reward."

So what does this mean? It means humans are naturally predisposed to be charitable. We are evolutionarily designed to give to the poor. It also means we do not need to be forced to help the less fortunate; we are, quite literally, happy to do it.

This, O'Doherty notes, is somewhat contrary to the prevailing views about human nature. "As a psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist who works on reward and motivation, I very much view the brain as a device designed to maximize one's own self interest," says O'Doherty. "The fact that these basic brain structures appear to be so readily modulated in response to rewards obtained by others highlights the idea that even the basic reward structures in the human brain are not purely self-oriented."

Humans love charity - what can I say? It's science.

[Caltech via Freakonomics]

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