Altruism and will to redistribute wealth can be trained

U.S. Psychologists believe they have found a way to strengthen compassion in people

After the attempts of neurosurgeon delgado to stop aggressiveness with implanted electrodes attacking bulls, stanly kubrick filmed the novel clockwork orange by anthony burgess, which is supposed to present the failed attempt to drive out the evil from a human being by brainwashing. But to stop the bose is different from respecting the fellow human being and feeling pity or compassion when he suffers. Psychologists from the center of investigation of healthy minds and others now want to have found a method how to train people to feel more compassion.

The compassion or pity lights up? Does it have its seat in the inferior temporal lobe? Image: psychological science

Psychologists and neuroscientists from the university of wisconsin-madison and brown university write in their article, published in the journal psychological science, that in healthy adults, even a short training session leads people to be more compassionate and exhibit stronger altruistic behavior even outside the experiment. Compassion is, according to the authors, of gross philosophical and scientific interest "because of its central role in successful societies". However, little is known about whether it can be learned and on which areas of the brain it is based.

The two-week training consisted of systematic practice of a buddhist-inspired meditation technique in which the 20 subjects were asked to imagine that someone had suffered and then to wish that they had been relieved of suffering. In doing so, they should use sentences like "may you be free from suffering" or similar repeat. First you should think of a loved one, then of yourself and finally of a stranger. And at the very end, they should feel compassion for a person, a "difficult person", develop with whom they are currently in conflict. 21 subjects in a comparison group learned to view stressful situations differently using a cognitive reappraisal technique to think less negatively. Before and after the training, an fmri scan was made. The subjects were in the laboratory three times, otherwise they practiced for half an hour each with audio instructions via the internet.

In order to check whether a change in attitude can be expected as a result of this kind of "brainwash" has shown that they love the subjects to play a redistribution game. The game was played online with two anonymous players, a "dictator", who has 10 dollars at his disposal, and a "victims", which has nothing. They observed how the dictator unfairly gave just one dollar to the victim out of every 10 dollars received. Afterwards, they should decide how much of their 5 dollars they will give to the victim as compensation, thus forcing the dictator to double it again. So if they give 2 dollars, the dictator must give 4. The 56 test subjects were told that they were playing with real people. However, since 15 of them did not really want to believe it, the experiment could only be carried out with 41 people.

Those trained to be compassionate gave an average of 1.84 times, or $1.1, more than members of the comparison group, making the portion the dictator paid to the victim 57 percent coarser; in the comparison group, it was 31 percent coarser. For the scientists already a proof that altruism can be increased even in the short term by training.

During the brain scans, the subjects were shown neutral images of people without emotional arousal and images of people exposed to stress, physical pain or aggression. According to the evaluation, the compassion training increased the activity in the inferior temporal lobe when looking at pictures of people suffering, which, according to the scientists, belongs to the network of mirror neurons. This is again correlated with the mab of redistribution in the game. The more altruistic the subjects were after the training, the higher was the activity in this area. No increased activity was found in the comparison group, which is why the scientists ame that the inferior temporal lobe plays an important role in empathy. For this purpose, there was increased activity in the nucleus accumbens in the forebrain and in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which are related to emotion regulation and reward. Positive feelings towards others were strengthened, stress was reduced.

Instead of religion, daily inculcation of altruism

For richard davidson, the lead researcher of the study, it is remarkable that after just a few hours of training in total, the feeling can be strengthened in a similar way to physical or cognitive performance. One could train as compassion and philanthropy in schools to stop the students from bullying. He also believes that people who are afraid of others or exhibit antisocial behavior could benefit from the training. The center also offers the meditation instructions for downloading.

Will our children now be inoculated with compassion?? Will society become kinder and better this way? Will the redistribution between rich and poor now also be driven by the rich exercising their empathy? Will soon give be sparing than take? However, the scientists observed only a short-term effect in a game situation. Whether altruism persists with the duration of training is of course questionable, it is also unclear whether it is realized in real life., where you don’t play against a bad guy with low stakes in a very artificial situation, but you have to deal with your own concrete interests, fears, moods of your fellow men etc.. Etc. And clockwork orange deals with the situation of those who can no longer be aggressive and fight back when they stumble upon others who take advantage of it.

At first it seems to be just a gimmick, but of course questions arise. Already in 1961, stanislaw lem, for example, has discussed the consequences of such an "improvement" of human beings in his science fiction novel "transfer" . Astronauts, still driven by aggression, return to an earth where all people are peaceful, kind and altruistic.