Why do we help others? More specifically, why do we help others that are not related to us? What do we get out of it? Evolutionarily speaking it doesn’t make any sense. Every organism in nature seems to be entirely focussed on doing whatever it takes to reproduce their own genes, and yet humans can often be found helping other people at great cost to themselves.
Human altruism is a phenomenon that has intrigued scientists, philosophers and psychologists for centuries. Whilst it can be argued that, in the ten millennia or so since we started farming and making larger conurbations, to be a part of a larger society we need to behave in such a way that benefits the greater good, society. The alternative is various degrees of anarchy and that is unlikely to be beneficial to our own offspring. Perhaps our higher reasoning abilities that allow us to empathise with others and place ourselves in their shoes gives us a perspective that raises the moral bar?
Could there also be, though, a biological imperative that forces us to behave altruistically? Something hardwired into our brain architecture that limits our choices? This is the question that Molly Crockett and her team at Oxford University are trying to answer in their open access paper in Nature Neuroscience.
They approached the problem by putting participants in a scenario where they had the option of giving themselves or a stranger an electric shock in return for cold, hard cash. Whilst making their decision they were inside an fMRI scanner so that their brain activity could be monitored simultaneously.
In agreement with other studies of this nature, the results showed that most people chose to hurt themselves before they would hurt another; but the researchers wanted to go deeper. Both the quantity of shocks and the amount of money was varied in different runs of the experiment to try and establish why we do this. Is it because we perceive pain in others to be worse than pain in ourselves? Or is it because the profit made from harming another is devalued compared to profit gained from harming ourselves?
Three main areas of the brain came under scrutiny: the anterior cingulate cortex, associated with empathy; the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, used to assign value to things; and the lateral prefrontal cortex, active when making cognitive decisions. I am not going to go into detail about which area lit up under which conditions because, frankly, only a neuroscientist could make full sense of it; it is the interplay of these areas, though, that elucidates our answer.
It turns out that it is not the pain that is the motivating factor. Our brain activity does not seem to be more concerned about hurting another than it does about us hurting ourselves. It is profit that is key. The researchers found that our brains assign a lower value to the profit gained from hurting another than that gained from self harm, even if the real world value is equal in both cases.
At this point I’m obliged to enter the usual caveats when it comes to fMRI scans. 1. Just because an area of the brain has increased blood flow at a certain time we cannot know for certain what is going on in a person’s mind consciously or subconsciously. 2. Depending on how the analysis is conducted it is possible to generate a false positive result very easily, for example, a dead salmon might be seen to identify human emotions. 3. Though this study is a relatively large one by fMRI standards, n is still pretty puny at about 50 participants.
To get back to the case in hand, though, we have a potentially interesting result. Ill gotten gains are, somehow, tainted when we think of them. The question this prompts in me is: if our profit is diminished in our own assessment of it then is it still altruistic to zap ourselves as opposed to a stranger? Could that not be considered a selfish act, especially considering that the amount of pain doesn’t seem to factor in the equation in our brain? I don’t have the neuroscientific or philosophical chops to answer that question but I’d be fascinated to learn more about it.
Assuming this paper stands the test of time, then, can we say we have learnt something fundamental about human nature? Is our altruism just a product of living in cities or are we fundamentally a decent species? Indeed, are we mistaking altruism for something altogether more self serving? This most fascinating debate continues.