Tag Archives: altruism

Helping others helps your brain feel less pain

Doing good for others may do us good in turn, a new paper suggests. Engaging in altruistic behavior without expecting something in return can lessen physical pain, it found.

Image via Pixabay.

Most people like doing good things for others. Altruistic behavior has been shown to trigger the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine in the brain, which amplify nice cozy feelings. But the same chemicals can lessen our subjective perception of pain, a new paper reports.

Pain Less

“We find consistent behavioral and neural evidence that in physically threatening situations acting altruistically can relieve painful feelings in human performers,” the study explains.

The team carried out four experiments to see if engaging in altruistic behavior could alter the way people perceive pain. In the first experiment, they asked donors who gave blood after an earthquake to rate how painful the needle jab was to them. They also did this with volunteers who gave blood without a disaster having occurred recently (this acted as the control group). Those in the first group reported feeling less pain when jabbed with the needle, the team explains.

In the second experiment, the team asked participants to fill out some questionnaires while exposed to cold temperatures. Additionally, each participant could opt to help revise a handbook for migrant children with their questionnaire. Those that accepted formed the experimental group, while those that opted out of the revision task were placed in the control group. Both groups performed the same task, including the revision, but the control group was told that they were given regular counseling handbook (i.e. that the revision wasn’t altruistic in nature). The researchers report that those who volunteered for this task felt less discomfort associated with the cold than the participants who didn’t volunteer.

For the third experiment, the team asked cancer patients to report on their pain levels. Two groups were established: patients that cared (doing cooking, cleaning, etc.) only for themselves, and those that cared for others as well. The second group reported lower levels of pain overall, the study found.

In the final experiment, the team asked volunteers for donations to help orphans and asked those that did donate how much they thought their donation helped the cause. Each volunteer then underwent an MRI scan while receiving mild electrical shocks. Participants who donated showed a lower brain pain response than those who didn’t, and the more a volunteer thought that their donation helped, the lower this response.

The team explains that their findings suggest altruistic behavior not only makes you feel good but can also reduce our perception of pain.

“This reduced pain-induced activation in the right insula was mediated by the neural activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), while the activation of the VMPFC was positively correlated with the performer’s experienced meaningfulness from his or her altruistic behavior,” the team concludes.

As for why this happens, the authors write that it’s probably one of the “psychological and biological mechanisms underlying human prosocial behavior”, meant to promote cooperation between individuals and cement social networks. However, it’s not all rainbows and roses: previous research has shown that altruism and punishment are two sides of the same coin, and are used liberally to enforce the prosocial behavior in individuals.

The paper “Altruistic behaviors relieve physical pain” has been published in the journal PNAS.

London metro.

Egotists’ brains just don’t care about the future, affecting their choices in life

The brains of altruists simply don’t function the same as those of egotistical individuals, a new paper reports — and it can influence our choices in profound ways.

London metro.

Image credits Mattbuck / Wikimedia.

Some people do actually worry about future consequences — for example, those of climate change — while others can’t be bothered with something if it doesn’t impact their well-being directly. Wanting to know if these differences arise from the brain, a team of researchers at the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, took an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine and peered into the brains of volunteers.

Their results suggest that “egotistical” individuals don’t use the area of the brain that allows us to imagine and insert ourselves into the distant future. Those deemed “altruistic,” on the other hand, registered heavy activity in the same area. These findings, the team reports, could be used to improve people’s ability to project themselves into the future and engage more of the public with issues such as climate change.

Too Long; Didn’t Relate

One of the most fundamental criteria from which individual concerns arise is whether or not somebody prioritizes their personal well-being or puts everybody on equal footing, the team notes. In order to encourage as many people as possible to engage in sustainable behavior, it is, therefore, necessary for them to feel that the consequences of climate change impact them as well. People who are more self-centered don’t give the issue much thought, believing the consequences and potential hardships are far removed from them, both in time and space.

But why is it that some people register climate change as a pressing concern, while others can’t even be bothered with it?

“We wondered what magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) could teach us about how the brain processes information about the future impact of climate change, and how this mechanism differs depending on the self-centeredness of the individual,” says Tobias Brosch, professor in the Psychology Section at UNIGE’s Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences (FPSE), and lead author of the paper.

The team started their research from the IPCC‘s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 2014 synthesis report. They identified predictions about the outcomes of changing climate based on this document — for example a reduction in drinking water supplies, economic collapse, social upheaval, or increased political instability and violence. Then, they assigned a year sometime in the future for each of these effects — these dates weren’t meant to reflect when the effects will actually make themselves felt, but, rather, to see how subjects react to perceived threats in the near and (most importantly) far future.

Participants were then asked to complete a standardized questionnaire meant to measure their value hierarchies, giving the researchers an estimate of each individual’s selfish or altruistic tendencies. After that, the participants’ brains were scanned with an MRI machine. Finally, they were shown the dated consequences of the events, and were asked to answer two questions on a 1-8 scale for each consequence: “Is it serious?” and “Are you afraid?”.

Figure 1.

Individual concern judgments for events occurring in the near future (2025-2035) and the far future (2075-2085), respectively. “Egotistical” participants (dashed line) showed significantly less concern for events in the far future than those in the near future. “Altruistic” participants (solid line) appear equally concerned with regards to events occurring in the near and far future.
Image credits Tobias Brosch et al., 2018, CA&B Neuro.

“The first result we obtained was that for people with egotistical tendencies, the near future is much more worrying than the distant future, which will only come about after they are dead. In altruistic people, this difference disappears, since they see the seriousness as being the same,” explains Brosch.

Later, the team focused their investigations on the activity of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). This area of the brain, located directly above the eyes, comes into use when we think about the future or try to visualize it and our role in it. In altruistic people, the researchers report, “this cerebral zone is activated more forcefully when the subject is confronted with the consequences of a distant future as compared to the near future”. Egotistical people saw no increase in activity when confronted with consequences in the near or distant future.

Figure 2.

A) Activation in anterior vmPFC when considering events in the far future (2075-2085) relative to events in the near future (2025-2035) based on the exploratory whole-brain analysis. B) Parameter estimates for the region of interest in anterior vmPFC for the near (dashed line) and far (solid line) future scenarios. “Altruistic” participants (+1 SD) showed increased responses when considering consequences in the far future relative to consequences in the near future, while “egocentric” participants (−1 SD) did not show this increase.
Image credits Tobias Brosch et al., 2018, CA&B Neuro.

Since the vmPFC is used to project ourselves into the distant future, the absence of any heightened activity in self-centered people suggests that their brains don’t put them in the shoes of someone living in the future and, as such, they simply can’t relate to or feel concerned about what will happen after their death. In this case, they would have virtually no incentive to adopt sustainable behaviors, as they wouldn’t register the collective benefits of such a choice, only their personal cost.

The findings — which the authors note can be applied to all areas of human choice, not just those regarding climate change — show how important it is in a society for individuals to be able to think about the distant future and adapt their behavior to future needs and constraints.

“In our everyday life, we are frequently confronted with situations in which we need to choose between following our egoistic impulses and taking into account the needs of others. Do I spend my money on yet another treat for myself, or do I give it to the beggar sitting on the street corner? Do I buy a powerful SUV car, which is a lot of fun but also quite the polluter, or rather do I invest in an electric vehicle, which is maybe not as much fun, but helps to preserve the environment for future generations? Whether the consequences of our choices for ourselves and others are visible immediately or will only materialize in the future, we need to integrate them into our considerations when deciding,” the paper’s abstract reads.

“We could imagine a psychological training that would work on this brain area using projection exercises,” suggests Brosch. “In particular, we could use virtual reality, which would make the tomorrow’s world visible to everyone, bringing human beings closer to the consequences of their actions.”

The paper “Not my future? Core values and the neural representation of future events” has been published in the journal Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience.

Person in chains.

Chimps and children as young as six will try to witness antisocial behavior being punished

Our compassion towards others’ suffering seems to be more conditional than we’d like to believe. New research has found that both humans and chimpanzees will remain unsympathetic towards individuals perceived to behave in an antisocial manner. Pain inflicted towards such individuals will be viewed as a just punishment and an acceptable tool to punish misbehavior.

Person in chains.

Image via Pixabay.

Empathy, an uneasiness with witnessing another’s anguish, and a desire to limit suffering as much as possible seem to be hard-wired into human nature. Such emotions could have evolved, in part, as they benefited the group at large. Altruism helped stragglers keep up with everyone else. This, in turn, helped cement strong bonds within the group, which everybody later used to go on and babify. Marvelous!

It’s a very summarised explanation, of course, so it by no means captures the full story. It does illustrate why a desire to help our peers and limit their suffering is advantageous from an evolutionary point of view, however. This suggests that group dynamics have led, at least in part, to the maturing of such traits in higher social organisms, including us humans.

But there’s also a darker face to the coin of altruism, according to a new paper published by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) and the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI EVA). When dealing with somebody who’s behaved in an antisocial manner, this altruism is withheld even when we are witnessing that person being hurt, the researchers report.

Best served cold

This save-punish dynamic has been hinted at by previous work, which determined, among other factors, that people tend to perceive a perpetrator’s pain as a just punishment for their actions. As such, inflicting pain, rather than reducing it, is viewed as an acceptable tool to penalize those who contravene the group’s rules. Furthermore, past results have suggested that people tend to witness such disciplinary measures with a sense of spite, forming an experience that’s diametrically opposed to altruism or empathy.

To get to the bottom of things, the MPI team set out to discover the age at which we develop a motivation to watch what we perceive as a deserved punishment, and whether or not chimpanzees also share this feature.

First, they showed a group of 4-6 year-olds a puppet theatre performance involving two characters, which would at one point ask one of the children for their toy. One of them was a friendly character who gave the children their toy back, another was uncooperative and would keep it for itself. After the act, a third puppet would come in to play the role of a punisher and pretend to hit the first two with a stick. Children in the audience could, at this point, decide if they wanted to watch the hits by paying with a coin, or if they would rather exchange it for stickers.


I hope the third puppet was Kermit.
Image via Pixabay.

While the group largely refused to watch the friendly puppet being hit, the six-year-olds seemed to have no such qualms about the uncooperative one. A majority of them chose to forgo the stickers and spend their coins to witness the punishment. Perhaps more chillingly, the authors also concluded from their facial expressions that the six-year-olds were actually enjoying the show. Four- and five-year-old children did not show signs of this even when they chose to witness justice being served.

The team reports that chimpanzees showed a similar response. Members from the MPI EVA at Leipzig Zoo recruited two zookeepers for their study, which was designed very similarly to the puppet show. One would regularly feed the chimps, and another took their food away. Later in the experiment, another person would pretend to beat both of these zookeepers with a stick. The chimps could witness the scene, if they so desired, by opening a heavy door and passing to a neighboring room.

A significant number of chimpanzees put in the effort just so they could see the keeper they so disliked being punished. However, when it was the friendly zookeeper’s turn, they refused to watch and even protested vehemently as he was being ‘beaten’.

“Our results demonstrate that six-year-old children and even chimpanzees want to avenge antisocial behaviour and that they feel an urge to watch it,” said Natacha Mendes, scientist at MPI CBS and one of the first authors of the underlying study. “This is where the evolutionary roots of such behaviour originates, a crucial characteristic to manage living in a community.”

Co-lead author Nikolaus Steinbeis, also from MPI CBS, says that while the team can’t definitely say if the children or chimps felt any spite, their behavior suggests that they are “eager to observe how uncooperative members of their community are punished.”

The paper “Preschool children and chimpanzees incur costs to watch punishment of antisocial others” has been published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

Common knowledge makes people more cooperative

Common knowledge impacts how likely we are to collaborate with one another. Image via Wiki Commons.

It seems quite intuitive, but scientists have officially proved it – sharing common knowledge with someone makes you more likely to cooperate with him. This provides valuable insight into how altruism works, and how groups can cooperate towards a common goal.

There have been plenty of studies into altruism, but fewer have studied its lesser known “cousin” – mutual cooperation; that is, when people cooperate to help others, and themselves. To analyze this phenomenon, a group of researchers, including authors Steve Pinker (known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind) designed four games, which involved 1,033 people. The games involved giving subjects various pieces of information, from private to common. The common information was literally broadcasted over a loudspeaker. Each person was then asked to make a set of decisions, each with varying costs and rewards, choosing to work alone or with other volunteers.

Image via GreenBiz.

What researchers observed was that  when people have common knowledge, and they know that they have this common knowledge, are much more likely to cooperate with one another. Especially if the information they have is private (like if they know a secret):

“Because it may be costly to engage in a coordinated activity when no one else does so, attempts to coordinate can be risky when it is unclear what other people will do,” the paper explains. “If one protester shows up he gets shot, but if a million show up they may send the dictator packing.”

Indeed, this finding has many ramifications, from understanding how social media can affect users, to more deep social action and interaction. The implications vary greatly, from the big and extraordinary, to the small and ordinary; for example, this behavior can overthrow dictators, but is also responsible for something as mundane as blushing:

“The acute discomfort in blushing,” the study suggests, “resides largely in the knowledge that the blusher knows he or she is blushing, knows that an onlooker knows it, that the onlooker knows that the blusher knows that the onlooker knows, and so on.”

Another researcher from the team, Kyle Thomas, emphasizes the importance of this finding:

“Common knowledge provides a unifying framework to understand a whole lot of otherwise odd and seemingly disconnected phenomena in human social life.” According to Thomas, people often either try to create common knowledge for a specific aim, like “using Twitter to incite protests in Egypt,” or to avoid it, as when a family doesn’t discuss “‘the elephant in the room’ like the problematic drunk uncle that no one wants to confront.”

It’s not yet clear why this type of behavior occurs, but it likely has evolutionary roots. The researchers haven’t directly tackled the cause, but they theorize in the paper:

“Human cognition may have been shaped by natural selection to solve coordination problems. If game theorists are correct that common knowledge is needed for coordination, then humans might have cognitive mechanisms for recognizing it.”

Journal Reference:  Kyle A.; DeScioli, Peter; Haque, Omar Sultan; Pinker, Steven. The Psychology of Coordination and Common KnowledgeJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, Aug 11 , 2014, No Pagination Specified.