European researchers have found that people are better at learning and decision-making when trying to avoid harm to others than to themselves.
Their study, titled “When implicit prosociality trumps selfishness”, found that people more effectively learn to make optimal choices when they choose for another person rather than themselves, and also identified brain regions associated with these decisions.
The findings are published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
Lead author Lukas Lengersdorff, from the University of Vienna, Austria, says they were interested in how prosocial learning works, and how this is reflected in the brain.
“People learn very quickly to avoid actions that cause them harm,” he says. “Every child that has ever put her hand on a hot oven plate knows not to do it again. However, as social animals, we also need to learn to refrain from actions that might hurt others.”
To test this the team recruited nearly 100 male volunteers aged 18 to 35 years to perform a social learning task while having their brains scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Participants were instructed to repeatedly choose between two symbols – one that would deliver frequent electric shocks, and another that only rarely produced shocks. They had to learn, through trial and error, which choice would minimise the number of shocks.
The volunteers performed the learning task for themselves or for another person (an actor) whom they had met beforehand.
By finding the volunteers were better at learning to avoid painful shocks delivered to the other person than to themselves, the researchers suggest people are more sensitive to information that could impact others.
In the brain, these prosocial decisions were accompanied by synchronised activity in two regions – the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the temporoparietal junction.
The former is used for evaluating and comparing different actions we may take, says Lengersdorff, and the latter is a central brain area for perspective taking, or “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”.
This suggests that learning and decision-making stem from collaboration between the brain’s valuation and social systems.
Previous research on prosocial learning had found that when there are monetary gains, people are more egocentric learners, putting themselves first. But there seems to be more to the picture, says Lengersdorff.
“Our results suggest that this effect gets reversed as soon as people’s physical, rather than financial, wellbeing is at stake… and that humans do not always act selfishly.
“Indeed, they even support the notion that humans are equipped with an ‘intuition’ for prosocial behaviour.”
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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