EGI Notes

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Of Altruism and Apes

Science News, March 2016.


Goal-directed human behaviors are driven by motives. Motives are, however, purely mental constructs that are not directly observable. Here, we show that the brain’s functional network architecture captures information that predicts different motives behind the same altruistic act with high accuracy. In contrast, mere activity in these regions contains no information about motives. Empathy-based altruism is primarily characterized by a positive connectivity from the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) to the anterior insula (AI), whereas reciprocity-based altruism additionally invokes strong positive connectivity from the AI to the ACC and even stronger positive connectivity from the AI to the ventral striatum. Moreover, predominantly selfish individuals show distinct functional architectures compared to altruists, and they only increase altruistic behavior in response to empathy inductions, but not reciprocity inductions.


Hein et al. provide yet another striking finding. After categorizing participants as either selfish or prosocial on the basis of their behavior toward the control partner, they find that only selfish participants increase their donations toward the empathy partner, whereas only prosocial participants act (even) more generously toward the reciprocity partner. Provided that this result can be established as robust and generalizable to nonlaboratory contexts, it bears high relevance for social policy and for treatments of antisocial behavior: Whether we want to increase altruism in an already cooperative group or in individuals with deficits in prosocial skills, we should focus on emphasizing reciprocity or empathy, respectively.

That’s interesting since I would have assumed the opposite: that the selfish participants would be more attuned to reciprocity rather than empathy compared to the prosocial, and vice versa.


Two reintroduced females were not from the local subspecies; one has at least 14 descendants, whereas the other has had few offspring, many with health issues that could be the result of mixing populations. Meanwhile, an estimated nine males from mixed-species unions have carried their “cocktail” of genes into the wilds of Tanjung Puting National Park—with unknown repercussions. 

Hey, I thought “mixing” and “hybrid vigor” was great!  What gives?  Reality – when it is not politically charged issues related to humans, scientists admit that mixing populations is detrimental, leading to “health issues” and “unknown repercussions.”

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