February 24, 2010
Bigger Brain Reaction For Poor Getting Money

Humans have an instinctive desire to redistribute some of the wealth?

PASADENA, Calif.—The human brain is a big believer in equality—and a team of scientists from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, has become the first to gather the images to prove it.

Specifically, the team found that the reward centers in the human brain respond more strongly when a poor person receives a financial reward than when a rich person does. The surprising thing? This activity pattern holds true even if the brain being looked at is in the rich person's head, rather than the poor person's.

These conclusions, and the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies that led to them, are described in the February 25 issue of the journal Nature.

"This is the latest picture in our gallery of human nature," says Colin Camerer, the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics at Caltech and one of the paper's coauthors. "It's an exciting area of research; we now have so many tools with which to study how the brain is reacting."

I always wonder how much people hold some opinion or preference due to reasoning that they claimed to have used to arrive at their conclusion. When is logical reasoning the cause of an opinion versus a rationalization produced produced after conscious awareness of the preference? My guess is that most of the time we are not aware of our rationalizing and we tend to want to believe that our conscious reasoning brought us to some point of view.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 February 24 10:35 PM  Brain Economics

PacRim Jim said at February 25, 2010 3:09 AM:

I think it's a lot easier to identify with a poor person than a rich person. It's about survival.

Bob Badour said at February 25, 2010 7:49 AM:

This explains why someone like Bill Gates can push for policies that screw not only the engineers who work for him but might work for him and then turn around to give mountains of money to the poorest and stupidest people on earth.

Ray Midge said at February 25, 2010 8:39 AM:

My guess is that that this evolved in us to keep the tribe stable. One guy has too much while another goes poor leads to potential violence within the tribe - specificialy from the guy without and his kin taking from rich guy. Instilling such equality desiring feature into the entirety of the tribe, including the guy with plenty, gets a more stable/less intra-violent tribe. Inequality solved through less violent moral susasion. In short, good for rich guy too.

Obviously, there is a ying to this yang in that in some of us our, 'indiviudal rights' sensation/property rights sensation overpowers. Thus, your libertarians.

What will be interesting is when the pet scans can very, very acurately predict your politics from the size of the regions of your brain (and eventually, from looking at your genes to see how they're coded for creation of the regions).

not anon or anonymous said at February 25, 2010 10:59 AM:

Ray Midge: Contrary to common misconceptions, most libertarians are not against giving money to poor people. They just think that this should be done on a voluntary, case-by-case basis rather than by institutional government coercion.

Bill Gates is a case in point here: His foundation does not give money directly to poor Africans or Latin-Americans; instead, it aims to directly address the causes of extreme poverty, such as high disease burden, lack of access to financial services and underdeveloped agricultural sector. Keep in mind that governments have squandered trillions of dollars in aid to underdeveloped countries; this kind of targeted approach to extreme poverty could only be pursued by a private charitable organization.

PacRim Jim said at February 25, 2010 1:19 PM:

Gates is white-washing his name. He received stolen goods when he bought the clone of CP/M from Tim Patterson, so his fortune was built on a crime.
Now, instead of helping poor American kids, he chooses to redistribute money collected mostly from Americans to poor kids abroad, to maximize the "aahhh" factor among the easily befuddled.
Out, out, damn spot.

MarkyMark said at February 25, 2010 6:46 PM:

Steve Forbes in a speech has made the point that when people who have made a lot of money donate time or money to the poor or charitable causes they often say when asked that they wanted to "give back". Steve noted that this language has a connotation that the money gained was somehow ill-gotten or not deserved and to assuage the guilt they "give back".

Evolutionary psychologists have long believed that humans have evolved a belief in equality. I think that brain scans such as this just add additional evidence to what we think we already knew.

My guess is we have evolved to want to get ahead more than the next guy. One way of doing this is to drag the guy currently out in the lead back to the pack through the concepts of "fairness" and the emotion "envy".

Economic libertarians hate the idea that people may have evolved a belief in equality. In it's purist form economic libertarians (incl Steve Forbes i expect) tend to believe that it is only absolute wealth and income that matters and not relative income and wealth. This is clearly not true as people compare themselves to others in assessing how well they are doing. It appears to me anyway that libertarians often can accept that the reason communism and socialism don't work is due to human nature - i.e. that people are selfish and want to work for their own benefit and that of their families and that if you let the market be free there will be more for everyone. The problem comes when libertarians when faced with people who are comparatively poor and are jealous and envious of other greater gains - just tell them to "get over it". If people could over-ride their instincts that easily then you could probably make communism work well (which you can't).

I do class myself as a libertarian as I believe in more freedom over less but I think some of the key thinkers need to modify their thinking to take into account human nature both the good and the bad and variation between individuals and groups.

As regards as to whether people may be rationalizing thoughts which may be instinctual - this would go some of the way to explaining why arguments between people of opposing views are so often pointless. It would be funny to think what all the smart Harvard professors thought about all this. They would either argue against it or accept it and say that notwithstanding they are still right in all they say.

Mthson said at February 26, 2010 2:44 AM:

Bill Gates' policy of preferencing donations to "the poorest and stupidest people on earth" always struck me as curious because it also seems to go against his own interests.

He has a high chance of personally dying of a curable disease simply because society doesn't place a high priority on science funding.

Most people are lax about science funding until they're diagnosed with a debilitating or terminal disease, at which point they complain about the "unforeseeable tragedy" of it, and question why the medical industry hasn't cured it yet.

brad said at February 26, 2010 8:35 AM:

boy this is a shocker; just imagine more of the brain is stimulated with receiving a material benefit closely associated with survival, prosperity, etc. who would have thought it.

not anon or anonymous said at February 26, 2010 10:33 AM:

--MarkyMark, what makes libertarianism difficult is dysfunctional politics, not jealousy or envy. You could fund income redistribution by usng a negative income tax and as long as the rest of society was run along libertarian lines it would work fairly well. Indeed, Sweden and other Nordic countries have been able to sustain extremely high taxes by slashing other kinds of government regulation.

--Mthson, it also seems to go against his own interests.

Um, checks your facts. The B&MGF donates billions to U.S. based libraries, high schools and universities.

But yes, the Gates Foundation has staked most of its piggy bank into improving public health in poor countries. Given that disease load is a huge obstacle to development in said countries, this is a reasonable choice.

Mthson said at February 26, 2010 8:10 PM:

Not anon or anonymous,

Yes, B&MGF also donates to US causes, which could be said to be more in Gates' best interest, but the opportunity cost is still present. He's still likely to die from a curable disease simply because he doesn't make advanced medical research a higher priority in his budgeting.

epobirs said at February 27, 2010 1:34 AM:

OTOH, the researcher who saves Bill Gates' life decades from now could be a kid in a third world country facing death from something we already know how to prevent or cure. How many minds of great potential died in infancy throughout history? Poverty and high IQ are not mutually exclusive. Some of the most productive researchers working today came from regions, such as India and China, that were icons of impoverishment not long ago and still have a long ways to go within their borders to reach parity with fully developed nations.

I suspect Gates expects to join the rest of humanity to date in its 100% mortality rate. If any major advances in longevity come about in his likely lifetime, he certainly be able to afford them. But in the long term, we're all goners. Advancing the state of humanity as a whole has a greater personal satisfaction than just continuing to persist in living. If, by way of a side effect, the volume of high IQ researchers is substantially increased by his efforts and the field of longevity increases its rate of success as a result, big additional win.

As for Gates screwing engineers, far more Microsoft employees have become millionaires than just about any other company in US history. Quite a few companies in existence today were started by guys who got rich working in Redmond and set out on their own to do something unsuited to being a project within MS. And Gary Kildall could have had it all if his lawyer wife, Dorothy, had been more diplomatic when IBM came calling. DR blew the deal before Microsoft was approached.

It's hardly surprising that they got these results from the study. Basic empathy would make a poor person getting a reward more engaging than a wealthy person. This is why we have the term 'Cinderella story' for a common theme in fiction and journalism. The rags to riches story has always been more in demand than that of riches to even more riches.

Mthson said at February 27, 2010 5:38 AM:

OTOH, the researcher who saves Bill Gates' life decades from now could be a kid in a third world country facing death from something we already know how to prevent or cure. How many minds of great potential died in infancy throughout history? Poverty and high IQ are not mutually exclusive. Some of the most productive researchers working today came from regions, such as India and China, that were icons of impoverishment not long ago and still have a long ways to go within their borders to reach parity with fully developed nations.

Interesting post. However:
-High cognitive complexity genes tend to sift toward the top of society.
-Poverty and high cognitive complexity genes aren't mutually exclusive, but are inversely correlated.
-Interpreting it otherwise is nice, but seems to be normative thought (aligning oneself with social norms rather than thinking positivistically).

But in the long term, we're all goners.
-Only people above a certain age.

Bob Badour said at February 27, 2010 6:01 AM:


As for Gates screwing engineers, it's no secret Microsoft does whatever it can to prevent their employees from becoming millionaires. Further, Gates' lobbying for extending the H1-B program depresses wages and created the conditions for the whole "outsourcing" craze that saw a near complete collapse of the engineering job market in the US for the past decade.

So, it's more correct to say some individual engineers became wealthy working for Microsoft in spite of Gates' efforts to screw them for personal gain.

persiflage said at February 27, 2010 2:41 PM:

I find it unsurprising that this emotional reaction to extreme inequality may still be hard-wired (at least in part) within the modern human brain. And I agree that it is probably tribal behavior, and indeed adaptive for a tribal society living on the edge of survival, as our (few/remnant) distant ancestors appear to have been at one time, in a small corner of Africa. In that circumstance, the behavior would tend to promote the survival of all members of the tribe - a good thing when living on the edge of existence. Of course, in the extended family/tribal model, all members of the community know and "care" about each other, generally from birth to death.

We tend to forget just how "young" the race of H. sapiens is, and how relatively close we still are to our tribal/family group past. Collectivism appears to be a viable (and adaptive) model at the organizational level of the family/extended family, but breaks down when coercion/force is used to benefit "other", unknown non-family, non-tribe members.
Apparently, that's human nature.

averros said at February 28, 2010 1:52 AM:

Brain-imaging pseudoscience strikes again...

What they actually have shown is that people have empathy. Film at 11.

When somebody gives money to a poor person he expects that the poor person will be quite happy. His system of mirror neurons fires in response.

Giving money to rich isn't going go make that person very happy - it's pretty much business as usual. Not much empathy triggered.

There's no implication whatsoever that "equality" is somehow hard-wired in human brains. In fact, in all human societies people immediately form social hierarchy with rather explicit dominance/submission dynamic. (If anything, pro-equality leftists seem to be more predisposed to treating some people more equal than others).

Randall Parker said at February 28, 2010 10:57 PM:


What they have actually shown is why libertarian preferences for a political order are continually frustrated: Brains are laid out in ways that make people want to support policies inimical to libertarianism.

Doc Merlin said at March 1, 2010 1:38 PM:

Nothing to do with equality, it is diminishing marginal utility, something economists have known for over a century.

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