Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Hard-Wired for Generosity?

The Wall Street Journal looks into the new brain science of altruism:

[T]he latest science shows that, in fact, we are . . .  hard-wired to be generous. [...]

When subjects decided to give to charity, areas of the brain associated with the processing of unexpected rewards, such as the nucleus accumbens, lit up. The nucleus accumbens, which contains neurons that release the pleasure chemical dopamine, "is almost like the common currency of the brain. It keeps track of rewards, whatever kind they are," Dr. Harbaugh says. "There's some primary reward people get from seeing money go from themselves to provide to other people." [...]

On balance, Dr. Harbaugh's work suggests that giving completely for its own sake—with absolutely zero expectation of pleasure or other reward in return—is rare. We are forever making complex calculations about whether or not to give in different situations, but whether or not our gift will help someone is far from the only factor we consider. The better we feel when we give, in general, the more often we do it. And as the Georgetown philosopher Judith Lichtenberg points out, even when we think we're giving with absolutely no expectation of reward, we can't be sure; our motivations (feeling good? looking good? gaining social leverage?) may be unconscious, inaccessible even to ourselves.

Steve Clowney

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