It is well understood how people learn to maximize good outcomes for themselves and the model for this has recently been used to help scientists understand how people learn to help others.
As a result, scientists from UCL and Oxford University believe they have identified the part of the human brain that is responsible for learning how to be good to other people. The discovery could aid in the understanding of conditions where people’s actions are particularly antisocial, e.g. psychopathy.
Social behaviors that benefit other people is called prosocial behavior. Dr Patricia Lockwood, the leader of the study, explained that prosocial behavior is seen as an essential aspect of human interactions as it leads to cohesion and social bonding. Currently however, we know very little about why and how people do things to help others.
Although people are generally inclined to participate in prosocial behaviors, people’s individuality creates substantial differences in how these behaviors are acted out. A critical motivator of prosocial behaviors is thought to be empathy. This is the ability to experience and understand another person’s feelings on a deep level. The objective of the study was to test why and how empathy and prosocial behaviors might be linked.
Volunteers for the study had to determine which symbols would be more likely to give them, or another person, a reward. This was done while they were being scanned in a MRI machine.
The results show that although people learn to make choices that benefit other people, this learning happens slower that when they learn how to benefit themselves. The specific brain area that is involved in learning how to get the best result for other people, has however been identified. This area is called the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex. This was the only section of the brain that was activated while people were learning how to help others.
The region was however activated to different degrees in different people. People who reported having lower levels of empathy learnt to benefit others slower than those who felt that they had higher levels of empathy. The subgenual anterior cingulate cortex also showed a decreased level of signaling when people with lower empathy were helping others.
This is the first study that has shown a possible link between empathy and learning to help others and at the same time identify a specific brain process responsible for learning prosocial behaviors. These results will help people in the medical profession to understand the psychological conditions that manifest themselves in an antisocial disregard for others.7
The paper, titled ‘Neurocomputational mechanisms of prosocial learning and links to empathy’, is published in the journal PNAS.