This Is Your Brain on Altruism

(Photo: John M)

We’ve had a lot to say about altruism, and how economists and others have tried to study it. A group of economists at the University of Zurich now claims to have found a spot in the brain associated with altruistic behavior. From Pacific Standard:

It’s called the right temporoparietal junction (or TPJ for short). Along with many other crucial functions, this neural crossroads gives us the ability to understand the perspectives of others—a prerequisite for empathy.

Swiss scholars report they have found a strong connection between the TPJ and a person’s willingness to engage in selfless acts.

“The structure of the TPJ strongly predicts an individual’s set point for altruistic behavior, while activity in this brain region predicts an individual’s acceptable cost for altruistic actions,” reports lead author Yosuke Morishima of the Laboratory for Social and Neural Systems Research at the University of Zurich’s Department of Economics.

Thirty adults played a variety of games while their brains were being scanned. The study’s authors conclude that: “[I]ndividual differences in GM volume in TPJ not only translate into individual differences in the general propensity to behave altruistically, but they also create a link between brain structure and brain function by indicating the conditions under which individuals are likely to recruit this region when they face a conflict between altruistic and selfish acts.”

Do keep in mind that neither neuroeconomics nor empirical assessment of altruism should be considered foolproof, not by a long shot …

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  1. assumo says:

    I wonder how much this brain region has to do with a person’s ability to complete tasks as part of a group, and its relationship to general intelligence. It seems like many people who might flounder on their own do very well when they act according to the greatest benefit of the group or team. Does this have a basis in their ability to act and react to the benefit of others?

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    • scientist-at-large says:

      Dear Assumo, You have made an assumption about people (as defined as individuals or as members of a group). We are all the same. Indeed, we are not. Durkheim found and (I myself) confirmed a real difference (generally speaking) between men and women. Simply put (in a case study of college sports), men succeed in groups, women (when they succeed) generally do better on their own. I do not know whether this applies across societies, But- as to your question as it applies to science, I say- in my case, the main interest in gaining knowledge may well end up becoming a contribution to the greater good, but that has been a secondary concern in the sense of seeking to make a real contribution to the advance of sciences generally and sociology in particular and one that correctly predicts the future. Any intellectual approach chosen to gain such knowledge (other than an “empirical” and math oriented one) would not enable me to achieve my aim. The difficulty has been with the relatively chaotic method chosen. It requires self-discipline of the sort that is hard to physically and consciously sustain continuously day in, day out (without having to take breaks and switch gears) and (right now) this break (for the purpose of buying “a dream home”) has done wonders for how I feel about the study in question, I feel great and am ready to finish it off. . The question has been raised as to whether or not one can be “free of vanity.” I would have to say, perhaps not. A person has to feel good about themselves first. A supportive family or extended one of (mother, father, child, grandparents, sibling(s) or some equivilent (including nanny, shrink, friend, teacher) may well be necessary in order to succeed, but (as it seems) not sufficient.

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  2. Constantinos Charalambous says:

    Utility as a function of TPJ in the works perhaps? Isn’t everything a constrained maximisation problem? Visit my blog at http://www.everyday-economist.com to see what I mean.

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  3. Enter your name... says:

    I wonder if deficiencies in this part of the brain are found in sociopaths.

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  4. Richard May says:

    “thirty adults…”

    I stopped reading after that point.

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