Competing motivational brain responses predict costly helping

Oct 06, 2010

A new study reveals that brain signals elicited by the sight of someone suffering pain differ as a function of whether we identify positively or negatively with that person and that these differential brain signals predict a later decision to help or withdraw from helping. The research, published by Cell Press in the October 7th issue of the journal Neuron, provides fascinating insight into the neural mechanisms involved in decisions that benefit others, known as prosocial behavior, and how they are modulated by perceived group membership.

Dr. Tania Singer from the University of Zurich and now director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognition and Brain Science in Leipzig along with Dr. Grit Hein led a study where soccer fans witnessed a fan of their favorite team (the "ingroup" member) or of a rival team (the "outgroup" member) experience pain. The participants were then asked to choose to help the other by enduring physical pain themselves to reduce the other's pain. "We were interested in investigating whether elicited by witnessing another suffering pain are modulated by perceived group membership and how these brain responses are related to the prediction of costly helping – or lack of helping – towards ingroup- and outgroup members later on," explains Dr. Singer.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Dr. Singer's group observed that helping the ingroup individual was best predicted by activation of an area of the brain called the anterior insula while observing the suffering of the ingroup member and by associated self-reports of empathic concern. Alternately, not helping the outgroup individual was best predicted by activation of a brain structure called the nucleus accumbens and the magnitude of negative evaluation of the outgroup member. Previous work by Dr. Singer and other colleagues using similar paradigms had linked the anterior insula with empathy for and the nucleus accumbens with a desire for revenge and "Schadenfreude", pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.

The researchers concluded that empathy-associated activation of the anterior insula motivated costly helping, whereas a signal in the nucleus accumbens, a area related to reward processing, reduced the propensity to help. "Our study identified two neurobiological processes associated with decisions to help or withdraw from prosocial behavior, and provided a neurobiologically informed account of ingroup favoritism in prosocial behavior," says Dr. Hein. "Furthermore, it demonstrates the reliability of imaging data in predicting later behavior, especially in socially sensitive situations such as when participants are deciding to refrain from helping an outgroup member."

Explore further: Imaging study reveals white-matter deficits in users of codeine-containing cough syrups

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

I feel your pain: Neural mechanisms of empathy

Jan 28, 2009

Is it possible to share a pain that you observe in another but have never actually experienced yourself? A new study uses a sophisticated brain-imaging technique to try and answer this question. The research, published by ...

The conflict of reward in depression

Mar 25, 2008

In Love and Death, Woody Allen wrote: “To love is to suffer…To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer.” The paradoxical merging of happiness and suffering can be a feature of depression. Biological Ps ...

Brain mechanisms of social conformity

Jan 14, 2009

New research reveals the brain activity that underlies our tendency to "follow the crowd." The study, published by Cell Press in the January 15th issue of the journal Neuron, provides intriguing insight into how human behavi ...

Men, women give to charity differently, says new research

Dec 18, 2008

To whom would you rather give money: a needy person in your neighborhood or a needy person in a foreign country? According to new research by Texas A&M University marketing professor Karen Winterich and colleagues, if you're ...

Biofeedback for your brain?

Sep 09, 2010

There is new evidence that people can learn to control the activity of some brain regions when they get feedback signals provided by functional magnetic resonance brain imaging (fMRI).

Recommended for you

Common infections tied to some stroke risk in kids

11 hours ago

A new study suggests that colds and other minor infections may temporarily increase stroke risk in children. The study found that the risk of stroke was increased only within a three-day period between a ...

Celebrities in 'Ice Bucket Challenge' to fight disease

22 hours ago

Steven Spielberg, Justin Bieber and Bill Gates are among many celebrities pouring buckets of ice water over their heads and donating to fight Lou Gehrig's disease, in a fundraising effort that has gone viral.

Study helps explain why elderly have trouble sleeping

23 hours ago

As people grow older, they often have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, and tend to awaken too early in the morning. In individuals with Alzheimer's disease, this common and troubling symptom ...

Targeted brain training may help you multitask better

Aug 20, 2014

The area of the brain involved in multitasking and ways to train it have been identified by a research team at the IUGM Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal and the University of Montreal.

User comments : 0