Paying Taxes makes you feel good

Very interesting new research about the science of altruism.  In short:

Knowing your money is going to a good cause
can activate some of the same pleasure centers in your brain as food
and sex, U.S. researchers said on Thursday.

who participated in a study got a charge knowing that their money went
to a charity ? even when the contribution was mandatory, like a tax.
They felt even better when they voluntarily made a donation,
researchers found.

As John Tierney discusses in his essay on the research in The New York Times, this rebuts much of the conventional wisdom that there is no “pure altruism,” because all seemingly altruistic actions are taken either a) to make the doer feel good about him/her self; or b) to make the doer more likely to be the recipient of altruistic action.  A brief summary:

We are so convinced of our goodness that we recoil at the
philosophers and social scientists who have come up with less uplifting
explanations for our behavior. (What is it with these nasty academics?)

Kant considered acts motivated by sympathy as not praiseworthy,
because they make the do-gooder feel better. Psychologists have
similarly argued that ?empathy altruism? is ultimately selfish, because
of the emotional benefits it provides to the giver.

sociobiologist Robert Trivers worked out the mathematics of ?reciprocal
altruism,? whereby our urge to be nice ultimately serves to propagate
our genes by inducing others to cooperate with us. If you know that
even Simon Cowell cannot help being altruistic, you are more inclined
to give him help when he desperately needs it.

Some economists
have attributed altruism to the ?warm glow? effect ? the pleasurable
feeling of playing Lady Bountiful and basking in public admiration.
They?ve argued that there is no such thing as ?pure altruism.? But now
the pure variety has been spotted in the brains of students, at least
according to the new paper by a psychologist, Ulrich Mayr, and two
economists, William T. Harbaugh and Daniel R. Burghart, all at the
University of Oregon.

Tierney, formerly an conservative columnist on the Times op-ed page, does make one comment that I just cannot let go…

There were almost equal numbers of egoists and altruists, and their
brain scans correlated with their altruistic behavior. The altruists
chose to donate $20 on average, while the egoists gave just $11.
Unfortunately, the researchers did not ask the students in either group
for their political preferences, so we cannot even begin to speculate
who is stingier, Democrats or Republicans.

Cannot even begin to speculate…”  Oh, I think we can definitely speculate and I think we all know what the answer would be.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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