People Can Make Better Choices When It Benefits Others

Summary: Synchronized activity between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and temporoparietal junction improves learning and decision-making when people try to avoid harming others.

Source: SfN

People are better at learning and decision-making when trying to avoid harm to others, according to new research published in Journal of Neuroscience.

Humans are often motivated by self-interest. Participants in one study, for example, learned a game faster when they earned money for themselves as opposed to another person. However, this pattern changes when physical harm enters the equation.

Lengersdorff et al. investigated how effectively people learn to avoid harm to themselves and others. While in an fMRI scanner, participants played an electric shock game. They chose between two abstract symbols: one had a high chance of delivering a non-painful electrical shock while the other had a low chance of delivering a painful shock. Computational modeling revealed that the participants were better at making optimal choices — resulting in the least amount of pain — when they chose for another person, rather than themselves. This could be explained by an increased sensitivity to the value of one choice over another.

This shows brain scans from the study
Brain activity associated with valuation processes during choices. Image is credited to Lengersdorff et al.

People most intent on avoiding shock showed increased activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), a brain area implicated in evaluating decisions. Choosing for another person was also associated with synchronized activity between the VMPFC and the temporoparietal junction, a region implicated in assessing the emotional states of others. This implies that other-related learning and decision-making stems from collaboration between the neural valuation system and the social brain.

About this neuroscience research article

Calli McMurray – SfN
Image Source:
The image is credited to Lengersdorff et al.

Original Research: Closed access
“When Implicit Prosociality Trumps Selfishness: The Neural Valuation System Underpins More Optimal Choices When Learning To Avoid Harm To Others Than To Oneself” by Lukas L. Lengersdorff, Isabella C. Wagner, Patricia L. Lockwood and Claus Lamm. Journal of Neuroscience.


When Implicit Prosociality Trumps Selfishness: The Neural Valuation System Underpins More Optimal Choices When Learning To Avoid Harm To Others Than To Oneself

Humans learn quickly which actions cause them harm. As social beings, we also need to learn to avoid actions that hurt others. It is currently unknown if humans are as good at learning to avoid others’ harm (prosocial learning) as they are at learning to avoid self-harm (self-relevant learning). Moreover, it remains unclear how the neural mechanisms of prosocial learning differ from those of self-relevant learning. In this fMRI study, 96 male human participants learned to avoid painful stimuli either for themselves or for another individual. We found that participants performed more optimally when learning for the other than for themselves. Computational modeling revealed that this could be explained by an increased sensitivity to subjective values of choice alternatives during prosocial learning. Increased value-sensitivity was further associated with empathic traits. On the neural level, higher value-sensitivity during prosocial learning was associated with stronger engagement of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) during valuation. Moreover, the VMPFC exhibited higher connectivity with the right temporoparietal junction during prosocial, compared to self-relevant, choices. Our results suggest that humans are particularly adept at learning to protect others from harm. This ability appears implemented by neural mechanisms overlapping with those supporting self-relevant learning, but with the additional recruitment of structures associated to the social brain. Our findings contrast with recent proposals that humans are egocentrically biased when learning to obtain monetary rewards for self or others. Prosocial tendencies may thus trump egocentric biases in learning when another person‘s physical integrity is at stake.

Significance Statement

We quickly learn to avoid actions that cause us harm. As “social animals”, we also need to learn and consider the harmful consequences our actions might have for others. Here, we investigated how learning to protect others from pain (prosocial learning) differs from learning to protect oneself (self-relevant learning). We found that human participants performed better during prosocial learning than during self-relevant learning, as they were more sensitive towards the information they collected when making choices for the other. Prosocial learning recruited similar brain areas as self-relevant learning, but additionally involved parts of the “social brain” that underpin perspective-taking and self-other distinction. Our findings suggest that people show an inherent tendency towards “intuitive” prosociality.

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