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Researchers Study Human Brains To See If We’re Born To Be Selfish, Results Are Surprising

Written by Rebecca Beris
Rebecca is a wellness and lifestyle writer at Lifehack.
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“Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King puts the choice before all of us between altruism and selfishness. The choice, it may seem, may be easier than first thought. A recent study published in in the journal Human Brain Mapping, reveals altruism may in fact be rooted in the brain.

The study’s co-author Leonardo Christov-Moore, a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA’s Institute 6of Neuroscience and Human Behavior, said “Our altruism may be more hardwired than previously thought“.

The ramifications of the findings could be of great importance, as Marco Iacoboni, a UCLA psychiatry professor and senior author of the study notes that it could help make people behave in less selfish ways.

“This is potentially groundbreaking,” he said.

The first study

Christov-Moore and Marco Iacoboni recruited 20 participants to undertake the study. The brain activity of all of the participants was monitored using a functional magnetic resonance machine (fMRI). The participants were shown a video of a hand being poked with a pin and were then asked to imitate photographs of different faces. Each of the faces displayed distinct emotions, for example: happiness, sadness, excitement and anger.

It was found that the amygdala, somatosensory cortex and anterior insula are associated with experiencing emotion, pain and imitating others. Regulating behavior and controlling impulses was seen to be controlled by two distinct areas in the prefrontal cortex.

The next part of the study involved a separate activity. This activity required the participants to play a game, known as the dictator game, where participants are given a specific amount of money which they can choose to keep for themselves or share with a stranger. In this particular study the participants were given $10. The game consisted of 24 rounds. The strangers that were shown to the participants were all Los Angeles residence whose real income and ages were used. Their names were changed for the purpose of privacy.

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Findings of the first study

Once the first part of the study was completed the researchers compared the brain scans with the amount of money each of the participants chose to give away.

One-third of the participants were the most generous. They showed the strongest responses in the areas of the brain associated with emotion, perceiving pain and imitating others. On average this group gave away around 75 percent of their money.

On the other hand, the participants with the most activity in the prefrontal cortex proved to be the tightest with their money. They only gave away $1 to $3 per round.

Researchers labeled the desire to share with others as the mirroring impulse or “prosocial resonance”. This impulse is thought to provide the impetus behind altruism. Christov-Moore said. “The more we tend to vicariously experience the states of others, the more we appear to be inclined to treat them as we would ourselves.” 

The second study

The second study, published in the journal Social Neuroscience scientists looked at the prefrontal cortex and sought to explore how the brain works when people are involved in decision making. 58 people participated in the study; 20 of these participants were involved in the first study.

All participants underwent non-invasive procedures that temporarily weakened certain areas of brain activity.

The results of the second study

Participants proved to be 50 percent more generous when activity in their prefrontal cortex was weakened. Christov-Moore explained that by reducing the power of the prefrontal cortex people were free to empathize and feel compassion for others.

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He elaborated as follows: “participants would have been expected to give according to need, but with that area of the brain dampened, they temporarily lost the ability for social judgments to affect their behavior. By dampening this area, we believe we laid bare how altruistic each study  participant naturally was.”


The findings these two studies are eye opening. We, as human beings, may be more selfless and altruistic than many of us may assume. The studies show that James R. Ozinga may be right in saying,

“Altruism is an instinct for survival that may be in our genes–an internal force for goodness in everyone that  begins with birth.”

Featured photo credit: The Humanist via thehumanist.com

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