Altruistic traits are predicted by neural responses to monetary outcomes for self vs charity

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Abstract

Human altruism is often expressed through charitable donation—supporting a cause that benefits others in society, at cost to oneself. The underlying mechanisms of this other-regarding behavior remain imperfectly understood. By recording event-related-potential (ERP) measures of brain activity from human participants during a social gambling task, we identified markers of differential responses to receipt of monetary outcomes for oneself vs for a charitable cause. We focused our ERP analyses on the frontocentral feedback-related negativity (FRN) and three subcomponents of the attention-related P300 (P3) brain wave: the frontocentral P2 and P3a and the parietal P3b. The FRN distinguished between gains and losses for both self and charity outcomes. Importantly, this effect of outcome valence was greater for self than charity for both groups and was independent of two altruism-related measures: participants’ pre-declared intended donations and the actual donations resulting from their choices. In contrast, differences in P3 subcomponents for outcomes for self vs charity strongly predicted both of our laboratory measures of altruism—as well as self-reported engagement in real-life altruistic behaviors. These results indicate that individual differences in altruism are linked to individual differences in the relative deployment of attention (as indexed by the P3) toward outcomes affecting other people.

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