Neural responses underlying extraordinary altruists’ generosity for socially distant others (Rhoads et al.)
Neural responses underlying extraordinary altruists’ generosity for socially distant others
Most people are much less generous toward strangers than close others, a bias termed social discounting. But people who engage in extraordinary real-world altruism, like altruistic kidney donors, show dramatically reduced social discounting. Why they do so is unclear. Some prior research suggests reduced social discounting requires effortfully overcoming selfishness via recruitment of the temporoparietal junction. Alternatively, reduced social discounting may reflect genuinely valuing strangers’ welfare more due to how the subjective value of their outcomes is encoded in regions such as rostral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and amygdala. We tested both hypotheses in this pre-registered study. We also tested the hypothesis that a loving-kindness meditation (LKM) training intervention would cause typical adults’ neural and behavioral patterns to resemble altruists. Altruists and matched controls (N = 77) completed a social discounting task during functional magnetic resonance imaging; 25 controls were randomized to complete LKM training. Neither behavioral nor imaging analyses supported the hypothesis that altruists’ reduced social discounting reflects effortfully overcoming selfishness. Instead, group differences emerged in social value encoding regions, including rostral ACC and amygdala. Activation in these regions corresponded to the subjective valuation of others’ welfare predicted by the social discounting model. LKM training did not result in more generous behavioral or neural patterns, but only greater perceived difficulty during social discounting. Our results indicate extraordinary altruists’ generosity results from the way regions involved in social decision-making encode the subjective value of others’ welfare. Interventions aimed at promoting generosity may thus succeed to the degree they can increase the subjective valuation of others’ welfare.
Rhoads, S. A., O’Connell, K., Berluti, K., Ploe, M. L., Elizabeth, H. S., Amormino, P., Li, J. L., Dutton, M. A., VanMeter, A. S., & Marsh, A. A. (2023). Neural responses underlying extraordinary altruists’ generosity for socially distant others. PNAS Nexus, 2(7). https://doi.org/10.1093/pnasnexus/pgad199