Saturday, July 23, 2011

This is your brain on charitable giving

In recent years, researchers have begun using brain science to study economic decision-making.  This combination of neuroscience and economics has spawned the new field of neuroeconomics.  Much work in this new field centers on the use of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging).  The fMRI allows scientists to see which parts of the brain are working when subjects make economic decisions.  When some part of the brain kicks into gear, it uses oxygen.  The fMRI detects this depletion of oxygen.  In this way, the fMRI records which parts of the brain "light up" during a decision task.  By combining this with information about what different parts of the brain do, researchers can learn more about how people actually make decisions. 
Recently, Dr. Todd Hare, Dr. Colin Camerer, and others at Cal Tech applied these fMRI techniques to charitable giving decisions.  Previous research had shown that the VMPC (ventro medial prefrontal cortex) part of the brain lights up when people receive immediate rewards such as money or food.  The level of VMPC activation reflects the value (anticipated amount of enjoyment) received from the reward.  In the new experiment, participants made charitable giving decisions.  Just as with immediate rewards, VMPC activation reflected the enjoyment received from making a charitable gift.  When donors gave to organizations that they considered more worthy, they experienced higher VMPC activation.

Although the VMPC reflected the value of both immediate rewards and charitable donations, the mechanisms were different.  Two areas of the brain providing input to the VMPC were especially important for charitable gifts - the anterior insula and pSTC (posterior superior temporal cortex). These two regions have specific functions.  The anterior insula plays a role in empathy.  The pSTC is involved in shifting attention to focus on another’s perspective.
These neuroscience results suggest that the level of value placed on making a charitable gift may be the result of two items.  First, a donor must take the perspective of someone else – presumably the beneficiary.  Second, the donor must have empathy for that person’s situation.  If either of these two elements is missing, then the brain will not calculate a high value for making a charitable gift. 
People who can take someone else’s perspective, but who have no empathy for that person, will have no desire to help the person.  For example, people often take someone else’s perspective to guess what an opponent will do next.  But, this doesn’t suggest any empathy for the opponent.
Conversely, a person may have the potential for empathy, but lack the ability to take another’s perspective.  For example, a potentially empathetic donor may lack the life experience to understand the plight of a person in need.  Direct experience with the potential beneficiary’s circumstances could make it easier to put oneself in the other person’s shoes.

Much of the work of successful fundraisers focuses on encouraging these two behaviors – empathy and taking another person’s perspective.  This latest neuroscience study suggests that focusing on these two issues is not only common sense, but it actually corresponds with brain activity during a charitable giving decision.

Reference: The Journal of Neuroscience, 30(2), 583-590.

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