Selfish or altruistic? Brain connectivity reveals hidden motives

Posted on March 5, 2016

Photo: flickr

Psychologist and neuroscientist Grit Hein and Ernst Fehr from the Department of Economics, University of Zurich teamed up with Yosuke Morishima, Susanne Leiberg, Sunhae Sul and found that the way relevant brain regions communicate with each other is altered depending on the motives driving a specific behavioral choice. This interplay between brain regions allowed them to identify the underlying motives.

During the study, participants were placed in an fMRI scanner and made altruistic decisions driven by an empathy motive or a reciprocity motive. Simply looking at the functional activity of specific regions of the brain couldn't reveal the motive underlying the decisions.

"However, using Dynamic Causal Modeling (DCM) analyses, we could investigate the interplay between these brain regions and found marked differences between empathy- based and reciprocity-based decisions," explains Grit Hein. "The impact of the motives on the interplay between different brain regions was so fundamentally different that it could be used to classify the motive of a person with high accuracy" she continues.

A further important result was that motives are processed differently in selfish and prosocial people. In selfish people, the empathy but not the reciprocity motive increased the number of altruistic decisions. After activating the empathy motive, selfish individual resembled persons with prosocial preferences in terms of brain connectivity and altruistic behavior. In contrast, prosocial people behaved even more altruistically after activating the reciprocity, but not the empathy motive.


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Source material from University of Zurich


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