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Humans hardwired for altruism?

Discussion in 'The NF Café' started by Dionysus, May 29, 2007.

  1. Dionysus Brandy and Death

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    If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural

    "You gotta see this!" Jorge Moll had written. Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health, had been scanning the brains of volunteers as they were asked to think about a scenario involving either donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves.

    As Grafman read the e-mail, Moll came bursting in. The scientists stared at each other. Grafman was thinking, "Whoa -- wait a minute!"

    The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.

    Their 2006 finding that unselfishness can feel good lends scientific support to the admonitions of spiritual leaders such as Saint Francis of Assisi, who said, "For it is in giving that we receive." But it is also a dramatic example of the way neuroscience has begun to elbow its way into discussions about morality and has opened up a new window on what it means to be good.

    Grafman and others are using brain imaging and psychological experiments to study whether the brain has a built-in moral compass. The results -- many of them published just in recent months -- are showing, unexpectedly, that many aspects of morality appear to be hard-wired in the brain, most likely the result of evolutionary processes that began in other species.

    No one can say whether giraffes and lions experience moral qualms in the same way people do because no one has been inside a giraffe's head, but it is known that animals can sacrifice their own interests: One experiment found that if each time a rat is given food, its neighbor receives an electric shock, the first rat will eventually forgo eating.

    What the new research is showing is that morality has biological roots -- such as the reward center in the brain that lit up in Grafman's experiment -- that have been around for a very long time.

    The more researchers learn, the more it appears that the foundation of morality is empathy. Being able to recognize -- even experience vicariously -- what another creature is going through was an important leap in the evolution of social behavior. And it is only a short step from this awareness to many human notions of right and wrong, says Jean Decety, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago.

    The research enterprise has been viewed with interest by philosophers and theologians, but already some worry that it raises troubling questions. Reducing morality and immorality to brain chemistry -- rather than free will -- might diminish the importance of personal responsibility. Even more important, some wonder whether the very idea of morality is somehow degraded if it turns out to be just another evolutionary tool that nature uses to help species survive and propagate.

    Moral decisions can often feel like abstract intellectual challenges, but a number of experiments such as the one by Grafman have shown that emotions are central to moral thinking. In another experiment published in March, University of Southern California neuroscientist Antonio R. Damasio and his colleagues showed that patients with damage to an area of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex lack the ability to feel their way to moral answers.

    When confronted with moral dilemmas, the brain-damaged patients coldly came up with "end-justifies-the-means" answers. Damasio said the point was not that they reached immoral conclusions, but that when confronted by a difficult issue -- such as whether to shoot down a passenger plane hijacked by terrorists before it hits a major city -- these patients appear to reach decisions without the anguish that afflicts those with normally functioning brains.

    Spoiler: Page 2
    Such experiments have two important implications. One is that morality is not merely about the decisions people reach but also about the process by which they get there. Another implication, said Adrian Raine, a clinical neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, is that society may have to rethink how it judges immoral people.

    Psychopaths often feel no empathy or remorse. Without that awareness, people relying exclusively on reasoning seem to find it harder to sort their way through moral thickets. Does that mean they should be held to different standards of accountability?

    "Eventually, you are bound to get into areas that for thousands of years we have preferred to keep mystical," said Grafman, the chief cognitive neuroscientist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. "Some of the questions that are important are not just of intellectual interest, but challenging and frightening to the ways we ground our lives. We need to step very carefully."

    Joshua D. Greene, a Harvard neuroscientist and philosopher, said multiple experiments suggest that morality arises from basic brain activities. Morality, he said, is not a brain function elevated above our baser impulses. Greene said it is not "handed down" by philosophers and clergy, but "handed up," an outgrowth of the brain's basic propensities.

    Moral decision-making often involves competing brain networks vying for supremacy, he said. Simple moral decisions -- is killing a child right or wrong? -- are simple because they activate a straightforward brain response. Difficult moral decisions, by contrast, activate multiple brain regions that conflict with one another, he said.

    In one 2004 brain-imaging experiment, Greene asked volunteers to imagine that they were hiding in a cellar of a village as enemy soldiers came looking to kill all the inhabitants. If a baby was crying in the cellar, Greene asked, was it right to smother the child to keep the soldiers from discovering the cellar and killing everyone?

    The reason people are slow to answer such an awful question, the study indicated, is that emotion-linked circuits automatically signaling that killing a baby is wrong clash with areas of the brain that involve cooler aspects of cognition. One brain region activated when people process such difficult choices is the inferior parietal lobe, which has been shown to be active in more impersonal decision-making. This part of the brain, in essence, was "arguing" with brain networks that reacted with visceral horror.

    Such studies point to a pattern, Greene said, showing "competing forces that may have come online at different points in our evolutionary history. A basic emotional response is probably much older than the ability to evaluate costs and benefits."

    While one implication of such findings is that people with certain kinds of brain damage may do bad things they cannot be held responsible for, the new research could also expand the boundaries of moral responsibility. Neuroscience research, Greene said, is finally explaining a problem that has long troubled philosophers and moral teachers: Why is it that people who are willing to help someone in front of them will ignore abstract pleas for help from those who are distant, such as a request for a charitable contribution that could save the life of a child overseas?

    "We evolved in a world where people in trouble right in front of you existed, so our emotions were tuned to them, whereas we didn't face the other kind of situation," Greene said. "It is comforting to think your moral intuitions are reliable and you can trust them. But if my analysis is right, your intuitions are not trustworthy. Once you realize why you have the intuitions you have, it puts a burden on you" to think about morality differently.

    Marc Hauser, another Harvard researcher, has used cleverly designed psychological experiments to study morality. He said his research has found that people all over the world process moral questions in the same way, suggesting that moral thinking is intrinsic to the human brain, rather than a product of culture. It may be useful to think about morality much like language, in that its basic features are hard-wired, Hauser said. Different cultures and religions build on that framework in much the way children in different cultures learn different languages using the same neural machinery.

    Hauser said that if his theory is right, there should be aspects of morality that are automatic and unconscious -- just like language. People would reach moral conclusions in the same way they construct a sentence without having been trained in linguistics. Hauser said the idea could shed light on contradictions in common moral stances.

    U.S. law, for example, distinguishes between a physician who removes a feeding tube from a terminally ill patient and a physician who administers a drug to kill the patient.

    Hauser said the only difference is that the second scenario is more emotionally charged -- and therefore feels like a different moral problem, when it really is not: "In the end, the doctor's intent is to reduce suffering, and that is as true in active as in passive euthanasia, and either way the patient is dead."




    Now, this definitely wouldn't apply to everyone, if true. (And what id "good" isn't necessarily constant among several minds.) But, I it could be interesting to note this for people who wonder why atheists (and similar) would bother being "good".
     
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  2. Buskuv The thing which Solomon overlooked Global Moderator

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    Wow, I honestly wish I had the coherency and stamina to form an intelligent post. This is intriguing; fascinating really. Maybe I'll get more on it later. I don't know why I have such a fascination with the most random subjects.
     
  3. troublesum-chan i has one eyeball & its for yu

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    x3 this is....good.

    Interesting! I hope they come out with a nice paper on it. :3 maybe when i get into college i can work with it as a paper. I've always liked psychology and had a morbid fascination with morality, and the lack of.
     
  4. Amaretti No strong feelings whatsoever

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    Well, scientists have been theorising this for years, so it's nice to see it confirmed that altruism is a natural instinct rather than a learned behaviour linked solely to religion It explains why there is no perceivable difference between the morals of the religious and non-religious, despite what the a lot of the religious like to insist.

    But frankly, even though it's confirmed, there will always be morons who insist that humans need religion in order to be civilised.
     
  5. That NOS Guy The Pilot Who Lives by Pride

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    Ah good. Confirmation on what has been obvious for sometime. In the vien of awesome things I present this as something almost as awesome to gaze upon:

     
  6. Azure Ihrat Retired Staff

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    I think we need more religions based on a specific hedonistic behavior.

    Where's Foodism?
     
  7. Dionysus Brandy and Death

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    I've got dibs on Bacchanalianism.
     
  8. AbnormallyNormal 1 + 2 + 3 = 1 * 2 * 3

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    that makes sense that altruism gives people pleasure, its also somewhat common sense, as usual all psychology does is reinforce obvious common senes things
     
  9. Sam I Am The Voice of Reason

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    God gave men a conscience. Doing good has always led (whether in the short run or not) to feelings of good and doing bad has always led to feelings of bad. That fact has always been common sense.
     
  10. Swimfan908 Great in bed

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    Fail.

    .
     
  11. Orochimaru-sama Sannin Inconceivable!

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    Sam I Am, just stop; don't embarass yourself. You're giving religion a bad name by preaching.
     
  12. DemonAbyss10 Demigod

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    Indeed...

    I guess id be one of the very few people that this study doesnt apply to. Really, Doing good doesnt necesarilly make me feel good and doing bad doesnt necessarily make me feel bad. I dunno, i am a misanthrope/nihilist afterall...

    Good thing scientist are somewhat making an attemp at unlocking the complex that is the "normal" human personality. Note, i put normal in quotes, as there are prolly others like me who dont necessarilly fit the "system". Im a free-radical in laymans terms.

    Good read nonetheless though, good read.
     
  13. AmigoOne :(

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    This just adds to the nature vs nuture clash of psychology
    Cannabalism comes to mind.
    Also the SS officers of the holocaust.

    The mystery deepens.
     
  14. Circe WONGA

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    So when one says: "it is better to give than recieve", they do not lie.

    ...
     
  15. Robotkiller Still alive

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    This kind of corresponds with game theory and all that.

    A group of people acting co-operatively will always accomplish more in total then a group of people acting selfishly, so doesn't it follow that humans have evolved to be wired to tend toward co-operation?

    The catch is that in a group of entirely co-operative people, a selfish person gets an unfair advantage so there are needs to have limits on co-operation.
     
  16. Verdius Professional Chad

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    QTF, and Sam I Am is proof of just that.

    Ah I love the way science works.
     
  17. Haruno Sakura Uchiha Sasuke's Wife

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    Aww... That's actually almost kind of cute.

    Very interesting, thanks for posting it!
     
  18. mislead it's just Che Guevara

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    Hmm, this is interesting, to say the least. And, if anything, it only reinforces the idea that the crucial difference between humans and other species, are our social predispositions. Which, in turn, allow for big, resilient groups, that can develop culture and preserve randomly acquired knowledge. And voila, civilization is at our doorstep.

    Makes a lot of sense, that moral choices are for the most part emotional, rather than intellectual, too.

    It's not that they could accomplish more by forming a group, that could apply to other species too. It's that they needed to do it, in order to survive in a hostile world, not possessing physical assets similar to those of other animals. Amusingly enough, humans were awarded the grand prize for being generally unadjusted and weak.

    Oh, and the fact that selfish players can exploit cooperative models in games, can be seen as the cause for which more complicated social structures were invented. In essence, every primitive form of government would appear as a device to pacify those who go against the interests of the majority. And even democracy still carries this legacy.
     
  19. AbnormallyNormal 1 + 2 + 3 = 1 * 2 * 3

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    well the problem with this study is then of course how to explain all the immensely selfish and greedy behavior that certainly does exist. is greed even more pleasurable than altruism? and if being nice to another makes you feel pleasure, that means somehow its not really done for them but rather for yourself? maybe once you become awware of this study you can never again truly experience this pleasure because you'll always second guess your motives for nice behaviors.
     
  20. Amaretti No strong feelings whatsoever

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    True, but the selfish ones who take advantage of others put themselves at risk of being rejected by a community. It's seen in animals like vampire bats (for one example). The ones who regurgitate blood selflessly for the hungry individuals are widely loved by the flock, but the ones who selfishly take blood without giving tend to earn bad rep and eventually they're shunned and no one will give them anything. So there seems to be natural mechanisms in place that discourage and condemn unfair players.
     
  21. VoodooKnight Omae wa mou shinde iru.

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    Yeah, it is definitely something odd to read when compared to how most people tend to act.

    But regardless, even if doing good gives one a high, once pondered over relentlessly, the likely conclusion will be that it's your character that'll define you, not so much as how much good you do. That'll be between you and your God, and if you don't believe in one, then it doesn't really matter, right?

    It's still an interesting study, I have to admit.
     
  22. ToPocHi Member

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    Indeed, altruism as a practice sparks pleasure as when the expected result would be a return of greater favours, really.

    As some would prefer to perceive the new finding, something that has been genetically fixed since the existence of man in prehistoric times, some also take it that it's really nothing more than a mere hypothesis that's attempting to answer one of man's all time enigmatics.
     
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