Craving money, chocolate and… justice

Image by Lou Beach of The New York Times.A while back, I got really hacked off about a piece of really pathetic science reporting about some brain-related research in the post, Bad brain science: Boobs caused subprime crisis. And now, as if sent from heaven (or the Benevolent Goddess That Pokes Holes in Bad Evolutionary Psychology), this news release from UCLA, Brain reacts to fairness as it does to money and chocolate, study shows, by Stuart Wolpert. All caveats in place — including that I haven’t seen the reviewed piece that backs this up — we have some nifty data with which I can continue to pile scorn on those who think images of women’s cleavage dancing before them is what made the ‘financial titans’ leverage the US economy into subprime disaster.

The human brain responds to being treated fairly the same way it responds to winning money and eating chocolate, UCLA scientists report. Being treated fairly turns on the brain’s reward circuitry.

“We may be hard-wired to treat fairness as a reward,” said study co-author Matthew D. Lieberman, UCLA associate professor of psychology and a founder of social cognitive neuroscience.

That’s right — if you recall the sex-money-chocolate ‘hub’ in the brain that we discussed (well, snickered at) in the ‘Bad Brain Science’ post, now it also looks like this part of the brain is also involved in being treated fairly. So now it’s the ‘sex-money-chocolate-justice hub’ (they’re sure beer and pizza isn’t in there, too?).

I’m being glib, but I guess it’s because this sort of research is at once very interesting, but also can be marshaled in support of a whole lot of conclusions. And, unfortunately, in this case, the research is often slathered with a whole set of ‘evolutionary’ assumptions and unwarranted conclusions about ‘human nature’ that makes it hard to really appreciate what has been demonstrated in the study.

This project is more carefully described than the work discussed by the science writer I take to task in ‘Bad Brain Science.’ The basic experiment was clever:

In the study, subjects were asked whether they would accept or decline another person’s offer to divide money in a particular way. If they declined, neither they nor the person making the offer would receive anything. Some of the offers were fair, such as receiving $5 out of $10 or $12, while others were unfair, such as receiving $5 out of $23.

“In both cases, they were being offered the same amount of money, but in one case it’s fair and in the other case it’s not,” [Dr. Golnaz] Tabibnia said.

Almost half the time, people agreed to accept offers of just 20 to 30 percent of the total money, but when they accepted these unfair offers, most of the brain’s reward circuitry was not activated; those brain regions were activated only for the fair offers. Less than 2 percent accepted offers of 10 percent of the total money….

“The brain’s reward regions were more active when people were given a $5 offer out of $10 than when they received a $5 offer out of $23,” Lieberman said. “We call this finding the ‘sunny side of fairness’ because it shows the rewarding experience of being treated fairly.”

A region of the brain called the insula, associated with disgust, is more active when people are given insulting offers, Lieberman said.

The findings are interesting; it appears from the neural imaging that similar brain processes are involved in judging visceral disgust or physical reward as in experiencing ethical disgust or moral reward. I find this result intriguing, even if it’s not wholly unexpected, because it shows a way that brain resources likely developed — in evolutionary terms — to deal with physical or practical issues get reworked to deal with social issues. It also shows that the ‘reward’ areas of the brain can have profound reactions to socially and culturally constructed scenarios, such as ‘fairness’ in distributing special little scraps of paper. Moreover, it shows that more abstract concerns, like fairness, can actually inhibit the sense of ‘reward’ from the raw fact of getting money for nothing. That is, a socially or ethically inspired sense of rightness or wrongness can make us not feel like we got a good deal if it’s not fair. In other words, we don’t just focus on our own net gain but the whole meaning of the social scenario, including feeling like we got stiffed because someone else got a bigger piece of cake than we did.

I still reject the notion that this necessarily proves that we are ‘hard-wired to treat fairness as a reward.’ I don’t think that the research shows anything about ‘hard-wiring’, but rather about the ‘wiring’ of university students. No developmental or cross-cultural data has been discussed that might go to the issue of whether this ‘wiring’ is ‘hard’ or ‘soft,’ and I strongly suspect that it’s not ‘hard’ in the sense that this usually means, as we have plenty of cross-cultural evidence suggesting not every society thinks money should be divided equally, or even that money is terribly valuable.

The notion of ‘hard-wiring’ still seems to me to be one of the most problematic pieces of baggage that gets drug out in much of the brain imaging research, usually without data that would actually support it. The research is plenty interesting without the assumption of ‘hard-wiring’, and the concept just goes to supporting the worst sort of essentialist, nativist thinking; in this case, we’re supposed to have the ‘sunny side’ personality trait of inherently loving fairness. Of course, I’m sure some other evolutionary psychology ‘deep thinker’, likely not trained in behavioral genetics, evolutionary science, or maybe even psychology, will probably come along over the next few months, as if on cue, to tell us from research on university students that we’re ‘hard-wired’ to be selfish as part of our ‘nature’.

We are born with incomplete, unfinished brains. One of the things that’s so interesting about research like this is that we find these brains can be developed so that they link primitive parts of their structure, like the insula, to experiences that are so young in evolutionary time. All mammals have insulas, but I doubt that they ‘light up’ in brain scans when we short a fellow mammal on a just share in any loot. A panda is not likely going to get his insula up if we give him $5 of the $20 that we have to share (although eucalyptus might be a different story…).

As a story last year in The New York Times, A Small Part of the Brain, and Its Profound Effects (by Sandra Blakeslee) discusses, the human insula is different from other mammals because it picks up more sensation and it runs social emotions through systems that, in other mammals, tend to get used for much more immediate physical states (like disgust). Other apes seem to do this too, so they likely feel a bit nauseated when they are not invited to a party or are sexually rejected like humans do (I’m making that up — I have no idea if chimps feel a bit blue after striking out with a potential paramour).

The UCLA research suggests that the insula isn’t the only part of the brain that gets ‘rewired’ into systems that deal with social and cultural values, like justice. The assembly of the brain’s parts into systems for dealing with issues like fairness often has this quality of reworking parts into new functional systems. The point is not ‘hard-wiring’ for justice but that a sense of fairness latches onto a process that also gets used to make some of us feel excited about chocolate, lottery victories, soft-porn pictures, and other ‘rewards.’ I dare say that, given the right developmental environment, any one of these experiences might be rerouted through a different system, so that we were disgusted by soft-porn or not terribly bothered by injustice, for example.

H/t: Thanks to the link at Science Blog, Brain reacts to fairness as it does to money and chocolate, for this notice.

Image from The New York Times, A Small Part of the Brain, and Its Profound Effects.

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

4 thoughts on “Craving money, chocolate and… justice

  1. A great post, Greg. With your discussion of social emotions, brain processing, and evolution, I am reminded of something Jim Rilling, neuroanthropologist at Emory, once said to me about trying to imagine 50 chimpanzees cooperating to sit down in a lecture hall and listen to someone speak. Just won’t happen, though adult males will cooperate to hunt. And I agree with you, the basic biological design of these systems, even at the non-human level, is a lot more open than we normally think. Mesolimbic dopamine does all sorts of things, from shaping attention to learning error, and is not simply a hard-wired pleasure circuit, as is often thrown out in both scientific and popular publications.

    On a related note, I just found this interesting post from Natural Rationality on altruism and such, where Rilling’s work is discussed:

  2. What seems clear is that there will be few or no simple mechanistic neurological explanations of concepts such as justice. In another New York Times article, The Moral Instinct, 1/13/08 Steven Pinker cited Robert Trivers, who proposed that fairness could be viewed as originating from a suite of moral emotions. “Sympathy prompts a person to offer the first favor, particularly to someone in need for whom it would go the furthest. Anger protects a person against cheaters who accept a favor without reciprocating, by impelling him to punish the ingrate or sever the relationship. Gratitude impels a beneficiary to reward those who helped him in the past. Guilt prompts a cheater in danger of being found out to repair the relationship by redressing the misdeed and advertising that he will behave better in the future.” Each of these emotions ties to different brain functions and are then mediated into behavior through individual experiences within a culture.
    As you note, generalizations about “fairness” as they relate to human nature remain elusive. The topics are as challenging today as when Plato wrote his Republic.
    Jonathan Kroner, JD, MBA

  3. “I dare say that, given the right developmental environment, any one of these experiences might be rerouted through a different system, so that we were disgusted by soft-porn or not terribly bothered by injustice, for example.”
    Very interesting post. I see you making two points here:

    1. The researcher sees the excitation of the same brain region that responds to ‘chocolate and sex’ (rewards) get excited upon receiving, what is essentially, ‘money under certain conditions’. The researcher’s labeling of these conditions as ‘fairness’ leads them to the conclusion that: ‘humans see ‘fairness’ as a reward quite in the same way as they do chocolate and sex’. However, the labeling of those specific circumstances as ‘fairness’ is decidedly premature and biased. They could as easily be labelled ‘selfish’, you say.

    2. even if it were actually ‘fairness’ that the subjects were responding to (which is not something brought out conclusively by the experiment- see point 1.), one cannot universalize an experiment done on such a homogeneous and small population sample and come to broad sweeping conclusions regarding human nature.

    Agreeing completely with both points here, it does leave room for further exploration of this topic in my mind. After identifying these two gaps in the study and its proclamation, I can’t help but see that this also paves way for clearing once and for all whether human brains are or not hard-wired for justice. That would be by designing a study that addresses these holes:

    1. by including multiple, cross-cultural tests of fairness rather than just money distribution. And to also account for the difference between fairness for oneself and fairness for the other.
    2. by conducting the study on a large sample from a diverse demographic and cultural background.

    What do you think about this? Are there still some large holes that I’m failing to see in such an exercise?

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