Brain: Paying Your Taxes Pleasures Me
When you begrudgingly stare at your pay stub and see 10-20-30% of it missing, you're really feeling good inside, though you may be cursing and shaking your fist in the air on the outside. It must be a love hate relationship.
Researchers at the University of Oregon discovered that the same areas of the brain are stimulated when paying your taxes, as when you experience pleasure or after your third helping of thanksgiving dinner. They scanned the brain with an MRI instrument, the same instrument doctors use to hunt for brain tumors, while they told the participants the money they had been given was being taxed and given to a charity....
Researchers found that two evolutionarily ancient regions deep in the brain – the caudate nucleus and the nucleus accumbens – fired when subjects saw the charity get the money. The activation was even larger when people gave the money voluntarily, instead of just paying it as taxes. These brain regions are the same ones that fire when basic needs such as food and pleasures (sweets or social contact) are satisfied.
"The surprising element for us was that in a situation in which your money is simply given to others – where you do not have a free choice – you still get reward-center activity," said Ulrich Mayr, a professor of psychology. "I don't think that most economists would have suspected that. It reinforces the idea that there is true altruism – where it's all about how well the common good is doing. I've heard people claim that they don't mind paying taxes, if it's for a good cause – and here we showed that you can actually see this going on inside the brain, and even measure it."
The research team also investigated how giving charitable donations affected the brain, and their results were the same.
"On top of that," Harbaugh added, "people experience more brain activation when they give voluntarily – even though everything here is anonymous. That's a very surprising result – and, to me, an optimistic one."
Not everyone, however, is altruistic....
"We could call the people whose brains light up more when money goes to charity than to themselves altruists," Mayr said. "The others are egoists. Based on what we saw in the experiments, we can use this classification to predict how much people are willing to give when the choice is theirs."