Scientists Reveal Selfish & Altruistic Motives in Humans

Scientists were able to unveil selfish & altruistic motives in humans by observing interactions between particular brain regions. The findings are published in Science.

motives; brain

Identifying people’s motives through a particular interaction between different brain regions has been made possible by a group of researchers from University of Zurich who were also able to demonstrate how altruism can be enhanced in selfish people through empathy-related motives.

Deciphering motives of individuals leads to a better understanding of human behaviour. It has, however, been challenging to do so as it is extremely difficult to find out about a person’s motives simply by observing his behaviour. The researchers of the new study have, therefore, achieved an unprecedented feat by coming up with a direct technique to recognise motives.

They discovered that the modification of specific brain areas communicating with each other depends on the motives promoting a certain behavioural choice. They were thus able to identify the motives of participants through the interactions governing these brain regions.

The participants were placed in an fMRI scanner where they were to be driven by either empathy-related motives (characterised by the will to help someone towards whom one is empathetic) or reciprocity motives (help someone who has previously been kind to one) to make altruistic decisions. The researchers found that observing the functional activity of the specific brain regions did not unveil the people’s motives. Rather, investigating the interactions between those brain regions using Dynamic Causal Modelling (DCM) analyses allowed for them to witness the great difference between decisions based on empathy and those based on reciprocity.

The effect of motive on the interplay generated between the brain regions was “fundamentally different” such that it could accurately reveal the motive of an individual, says one of the authors, neuroscientist and psychologist Grit Hein.

Another important finding entailed the difference in the processing of motives in selfish and prosocial people. Empathy, as opposed to reciprocity, would increase the amount of altruistic decisions in selfish people. When this motive in particular was activated, the brain connectivity and altruistic behaviour of selfish people were found to be similar to those of prosocial people. On the other hand, reciprocity, and not empathy, would cause prosocial people to behave increasingly altruistically.

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