January 22, 2007
Altruistic People Differ In Brain Scans

Researchers Scott A. Huettel and Dharol Tankersley at Duke University have found that people who are more altruistic have more activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus region of the brain while watching a computer play a game.

In the study, researchers scanned the brains of 45 people while they either played a computer game or watched the computer play the game on its own. In both cases, successful playing of the game earned money for a charity of the study participant's choice.

The researchers scanned the participants' brains using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which uses harmless magnetic pulses to measure changes in oxygen levels that indicate nerve cell activity.

The scans revealed that a region of the brain called the posterior superior temporal sulcus was activated to a greater degree when people perceived an action -- that is, when they watched the computer play the game -- than when they acted themselves, Tankersley said. This region, which lies in the top and back portion of the brain, is generally activated when the mind is trying to figure out social relationships.

The researchers then characterized the participants as more or less altruistic, based on their responses to questions about how often they engaged in different helping behaviors, and compared the participants' brain scans with their estimated level of altruistic behavior. The fMRI scans showed that increased activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus strongly predicted a person's likelihood for altruistic behavior.

Do people do better in some occupations if they have more or less activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus? Imagine a career counselor telling someone "You have so little activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus there's no way a career in nursing makes any sense. How about sales?".

These scientists hypothesize that something about how people model the world makes them more likely to commit altruistic acts.

According to the researchers, the results suggest that altruistic behavior may originate from how people view the world rather than how they act in it.

"We believe that the ability to perceive other people's actions as meaningful is critical for altruism," Tankersley said.

Not sure what he means by "meaningful". Any speculations?

A twins study found that about half of the tendency toward altruism is genetic. The ability to identify those who are altruistic combined with cheap genetic testing will lead to the identification of the genetic variations that make people more or less altrustic. Psychopathy is also at least partially genetically determined. The same will also turn out to be the case for other ways in which people differ cognitively.

I've previously expressed my conviction that when people can choose genetic variations for their offspring they will choose to make their kids more genetically determined. In other words, people will leave less to chance. If they want their kids to be altruistic they'll choose those genetic variations that absolutely assure altruism. If they want their kids to be selfish they'll choose genes that leave no role for chance in the outcome.

I'm worried about that genetically more determined future for a few reasons. First off, people won't all choose the same sets of characteristics. Imagine one group decides to make their kinds more altruistic. Another group makes their kids more selfish. They'll disagree more deeply. The differences in outlooks will widen. Big divisions can lead to civil wars, wars between nations, and other problems. So one problem is that we'll get more people who are extremes as people give their kids stronger doses of whatever qualities they like in themselves or that they wished they possessed.

Another problem is that some people will choose qualities for their children that make those kids lousier citizens and lousier human beings. I happen to disagree with Objectivists who believe that only the ability to reason is enough to equip people with the potential to respect the rights of others. For example, the impulse to carry out altruistic punishment is probably essential in the vast majority of a populace in order for the criminal justice system to work and in order to get people to deal fairly with each in a large range of work and social settings.

I can imagine why some people (especially those who have a weak or non-existent impulse to carry out altruistic punishment) will choose to make offspring that lack that instinct. Will enough make that choice that some future generation will have less of that desire?

I think altruism serves a useful and even necessary function in some contexts. At the same time, it causes problems. We need to learn more about how altruism works and what causes it to get expressed in pathological ways (e.g. stifling high tax welfare states that reduce the costs of irresponsible behaviors and reduce the incentives and means to carry out more productive behaviors). Do some genetic variations for altruism deliver net benefits while others deliver net damage? We won't all agree on the answers to that question even when the data is in. Differences in values (at least some of which will be genetically caused) will cause differences in decisions about which effects are good or bad.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 January 22 10:19 PM  Brain Altruism


Comments
Gerald Hib bs said at January 23, 2007 3:10 AM:

I've written before that I expect online communities to arise around this type of technology similar to that which grows up around character creation for MMORPGs. A great deal of thought will go into these decisions by new parents and almost all will consult with others in making their decisions. A few of the participants in my hypothetical community (basing it on other such communities for different topics) will be experts in the field and there will be many many members who are very well informed lay people. Hierarchies based on helpfulness and knowledge will be grown in place.

I fully expect such a group to push for a genetic matrix that includes a healthy dose of altruism. There will be some who would choose to do otherwise but then I honestly expect most doctors to push for inclusion of at least some preponderance towards altruism for the good of society. Further I expect them to concoct scare stories -- or probably just give the latest state of knowledge -- saying that pushing to exclude altruism altogether can have very negative outcomes.

Basically it will take a very uncaring person to want a kid who doesn't have this trait arguing that "looking out for number 1" is the best way to ensure their child's future. However even those people will be kept mostly in check through peer pressure alone.

I will bring up the analogy of character creation in games again. Let us say you have a variety of sliders for different traits. Pushing one slider to 0 will likely influence the possible max settings for other traits as well. I would be surprised if this isn't the case for many traits including more than just the physical. If you give your game character a zero in a primary attribute you are choosing to limit your character in a multitude of ways. Very few people would put a trait all the way to 0 as the natural desire is for moderation even if doing so doesn't give you a nasty result.

Just as they wouldn't set a trait to 0 very few people would attempt to push a slider all the way to max. There is the saying that the line between genius and madness is very fine. I fully believe this to be true and don't expect the vast majority of parents to push their kids intelligence much above the 130-150 range. The higher you get in IQ the more likely your child is going to experience negative side effects in other areas. Similarly if you are 7 foot tall and 400 pounds of muscle you are going to be pretty slow and have lots of problems in regular society what with doors, cars, theater/airplane seats.

In the end I think we'll come up with most of humanity sharing a very narrow selection of genetic templates based around the conventional wisdom of what makes up the most well rounded individual with concern for getting to close to red lines ensuring moderation. The point will be to maximize the options for the child when they are old enough to make their own choices. They'll be smart, strong, fast and altruistic but not too much even of these positive traits. The balance of the choices will be about things like physical features or special talents. A parent may want a musical child thinking it will be more like them or some parents may push for a math talent thinking it will help ensure employment. Whatever the case I think parents will be left with mainly playing about with the margins rather than these essential choices either through peer pressure or government fiat.

Frankly Randall I think you are selling parents short. Even the lowest scum of the earth -- say a mafia boss, Hollywood agent or even a lawyer -- wants the best for their kids. While I can see the concern and there will no doubt be some bad choices made, especially in the early days of experimentation, I have confidence that as a community we will arrive at a balanced template for kids that makes this technology an unadulterated blessing for humanity.

I do see some nasty fights coming though. We see signs that religious feeling and perhaps even political orientation may have some basis in genetics. Those are some volatile subjects in themselves. Allowing the set point for those traits to be jiggered will cause a lot of conflict. I've read screeds saying that raising your kids to be Christian or a Republican is tantamount to child abuse. God help us if such a view gets governmental backing.

Vince said at January 23, 2007 5:43 AM:

"For example, the impulse to carry out altruistic punishment is probably essential in the vast majority of a populace in order for the criminal justice system to work and in order to get people to deal fairly with each in a large range of work and social settings."

The criminal justice system hardly works.

The Phoenix said at January 23, 2007 9:14 AM:

I think "altruism" itself is so subjective. Shouldn't we make sure we have a clear definition of what being altruistic really is...and what the consequences are of such behavior? It's easy to see how great a trait it is, as we could all be more giving and less selfish. But maybe being selfish has it's place as well.

It's interesting to discover what part of the brain is responsible for altruism, but using it to one day push up the altruistic factor in people just sounds dangerous. Would we be losing something important? Something we've harnessed in order to survive?

Doug said at January 23, 2007 11:43 AM:

Randall asked, "Not sure what he means by 'meaningful'. Any speculations?" Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, offers an opinion that "the friend is another self." The passage in which he offers the opinion bears much more subtle interpretation than I can undertake merely in a comment, but with Aristotle's expressed view in mind, I'll offer that the "altruist" is perhaps somewhat enabled to see the actions of one self as equivalent to the actions of oneself. (You read that correctly.) It makes sense for a structure of brain to enable such thinking, from the standpoint of the opinion Aristotle offers in the De Anima, that all animal action is for the sake of "continuity as one in number" or "continuity as one in kind." In the same passage, Aristotle reminds the reader that "continuity as one in number" is ultimately impossible, so that in animal action, it tends to serve as a means to "continuity as one in kind." The more one reads Aristotle attentively and respectfully, the more one may come to be of the opinion that he anticipated sociobiology by 2400 years, and that it's altogether too bad that classicists are not biologists and biologists are not classicists.

Wolf-Dog said at January 23, 2007 1:33 PM:

"I'm worried about that genetically more determined future for a few reasons. First off, people won't all choose the same sets of characteristics. Imagine one group decides to make their kinds more altruistic. Another group makes their kids more selfish. They'll disagree more deeply. The differences in outlooks will widen. Big divisions can lead to civil wars, wars between nations, and other problems.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

This was precisely one of the reasons Stephen Hawking said that to save the human race from self-destruction, space and other stars must be colonized in the future. He also said before that genetic engineering will "increase the complexity" of life on earth. But unfortunately, the colonization of space will become feasible only after several generations, but the tensions will develop long before that...

Randall Parker said at January 23, 2007 6:07 PM:

Vince,

The criminal justice system works remarkably well as compared to most of Africa, Latin America, and some other parts of the world. If your claim was true we'd have much higher crime rates.

The Phoenix,

Generally if someone sacrifices their own interests to benefit some others then they are being altruistic. Some altruism is for genetic relations. But it is still sacrifice of one's personal interests even if not a sacrifice of the interests of one's genes.

Randall Parker said at January 23, 2007 6:42 PM:

Gerald Hibbs states:

Frankly Randall I think you are selling parents short. Even the lowest scum of the earth -- say a mafia boss, Hollywood agent or even a lawyer -- wants the best for their kids.

No Gerald, I'm not selling them short. I expect them to want what is best. But their idea of what is best is going to be different than yours. Some will think that making their kids more selfish is necessary because it is a dog-eat-dog world and they don't want their kids to be marks, push-overs, gullible, soft. They'll decide that too much empathy or altruism will make their kids weak tools in the hands of the less scrupulous. So they'll make their kids more brutal and cut-throat in order to compete more effectively.

rsilvetz said at January 23, 2007 10:25 PM:

Randall is correct that the Objectivists did not go far enough. To the extent they have identified a necessary ingredient they should be congratulated. One of the most interesting aspects of the current human state is that is not logical. We have scaled the village to societies of ten and hundreds of millions by pushing tribal politics and stone age economics on continent-size areas. What prevents the breakdown of this arrangement are two items:

1) Internal restraints, some genetic, some learned, in 85% of individuals. The rest comprise our mercenary class and criminal classes.

2) The distribution of force -- an overall preponderance of force in the centralized state but with a significant counterweight of personal level force (personal firearms)

Both of these foundations are weak and in precarious balance. While I don't personally share Randall's nightmare scenario, the unintended consequences of mucking with the genetics may disrupt the balance and societies as we know?

Lono said at January 25, 2007 12:56 PM:

MEAN PEOPLE SUCK!

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That being said, I look forward to the day me an my altruistic bretheren take up arms and destroy the selfish peoples of the Earth!

(I am only half joking)

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