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Op-Ed: Do selfish people have small minds? Physically, yes, in part

By Paul Wallis     Jul 12, 2012 in Science
Sydney - If you’ve ever been inflicted with a really selfish person, seen the pettiness and the immaturity, “small minded” is one of the more natural, if much too polite, descriptions. It seems selfish people actually do have a smaller part of the brain.
A recent study has shown that the part of the brain related to altruism reacts very differently when comparing altruistic and genuinely selfish people. The real altruist’s brain only starts reacting to expense at very high levels, where the selfish brain goes nuts well before those levels.
Science Daily:
To investigate whether differences in altruistic behavior have neurobiological causes, volunteers were to divide money between themselves and an anonymous other person. The participants always had the option of sacrificing a certain portion of the money for the benefit of the other person. Such a sacrifice can be deemed altruistic because it helps someone else at one's own expense. The researchers found major differences in this respect: Some participants were almost never willing to sacrifice money to benefit others while others behaved very altruistically.
More gray matter
The aim of the study, however, was to find out why there are such differences. Previous studies had shown that a certain region of the brain -- the place where the parietal and temporal lobes meet -- is linked to the ability to put oneself in someone else's shoes in order to understand their thoughts and feelings. Altruism is probably closely related to this ability. Consequently, the researchers suspected that individual differences in this part of the brain might be linked to differences in altruistic behavior. And, according to Yosuke Morishima, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Economics at the University of Zurich, they were right: "People who behaved more altruistically also had a higher proportion of gray matter at the junction between the parietal and temporal lobes."
This part of the brain apparently reacts to values in relation to self-interest. The brains didn’t need to do much until the cost of the altruism was at a very high level, near a self-determined cutoff point for return on investment. The actual amount of “gray matter” may have something to do with literally having the brain power to have the ability to process information or not, but these findings were consistent.
Extrapolate for a moment, and you can see some rather familiar behavioural and relationship issues. Altruistic and selfish people can find each other incomprehensible. Ask some people to help the poor or the starving, and you might as well be speaking another language. Truly altruistic people, on the other hand, seem to see nothing even mildly worrying about going into a war zone to do aid work.
Small minded? Yes, but with some obvious qualifiers. Risk and reward are also survival strategies, and this social culture doesn’t exactly encourage altruism. Quite the opposite, in fact, it encourages selfishness.
Another study found that it was possible to measure altruism/selfishness quite effectively, and it actually supports the Zurich study:
Science Daily, again:
Individuals who excel at understanding others' intents and beliefs are more altruistic than those who struggle at this task. The ability to understand others' perspectives has previously been associated with activity in a brain region known as the temporoparietal junction (TPJ). Based on these past findings, Fehr and his team reasoned that the size and activation of the TPJ would relate to individual differences in altruism.
In the new study, subjects underwent a brain imaging scan and played a game in which they had to decide how to split money between themselves and anonymous partners. Subjects who made more generous decisions had a larger TPJ in the right hemisphere of the brain compared with subjects who made stingy decisions.
That’s entirely consistent with the risk/reward issues. In this study, the findings showed a rising plane of risk, with more people dropping out as the bar was raised. Not too surprising, but a lot of people went under the bar rather than over it. A part of the brain which is proportionately reactive does explain this phenonmenon quite well.
Would you give $10 to a charity?
How about $100?
What about $10000?
This is a logical process, no smoke and mirrors required. The truly selfish person will shut down at $10. The cost is unacceptable. The real altruist might not have the $1000, but is quite likely to not only figure out a way of raising it but also putting in the sort of effort required to raise it.
If you’re wondering what the study of altruism has to do with anything, it’s core research. How people react, why they react, and what’s likely to happen when they do is fundamental psychology/psychiatry and neurology. The left brain/right brain thing has long been associated with calculation and thought processes. This sort of study is pinning down actual functions of parts of the brain.
What interests me is that we apparently have two different brain morphologies, with totally different reactions, quite unalike. There’s been a lot of talk lately about “polarization”. What seems to be happening is that the default reactions of people’s brains are geared to behaviours, and those behaviours, on the social level, are mutually exclusive.
Real altruists, like army combat medics, aid workers, and a range of other quite selfless people, coexist on the same planet, very incompatibly, with corporate sycophants, stooges, and utterly selfish people. You’d have to bolt down the altruists to prevent them risking their lives, and you have to point a gun at selfish people for them to even think about spending a cent on a charity.
Are there different types of human? One kind self-obsessed, the other almost saintlike? Historically, the answer is yes. Fearless altruists have been documented for thousands of years, as have the ultra-greedy and ultra-selfish.
Each does what they think is natural. They understand their motives and never question them. The altruists are admirable by any standards, but can be reckless and utterly uncomprehending of dangers and quite intolerant of the fears and reservations of others. They can be naïve, and assume everyone else shares their values. Their very high social value is that they actively support the survival of others.
The selfish can be utterly contemptible, despicable, and downright criminal. There’s not much to like about the selfish people, but it has to be admitted that they always find ways of surviving themselves, however disgusting. You can learn a lot from selfish people, even if you risk starvation as a result of constantly puking seeing how they operate.
“Social” intelligence?
It’s interesting and to me amusing to note that this fundamental type of behaviour is an area which has never been covered in the “social intelligence” spectrum of management science/myth. Like most forms of “mad scientist” pseudo-psychology, the theory is that you can manipulate your social environment and other people with your behaviour. Contrast this theory with the mindsets of altruists and selfish people.
Manipulate a selfish person? Forget it. You can only manipulate them by appealing to their selfishness.
Manipulate an altruist? Only by appealing to their altruism. Yet again, a bogus behavioural pattern is faced with reality.
Society, too, is faced with a reality- Selfishness based cultures and societies historically have a very high failure rate. They’re anti-social societies. My personal usage description of selfish people is “brain blind”. They simply do not/will not see the advantages of a society which isn’t in a state of constant conflict with itself. They don’t see why it’s better to share costs, for example, rather than forcing people to pay higher prices for services.
Reading a study which indicates that they’re also physically deficient does explain quite a bit. What the brain can’t or won’t process does show the logic very effectively. Selfish people aren’t stupid about their own interests, far from it, but they’re absolute idiots objectively in any social sense. Altruists can be infuriating, and some of them refuse to address either practicalities or the sensitivities of others. The notorious early days of In Your Face environmentalism, when people would storm into an office, call the guy behind the desk a criminal, and then demand money and work from that person for environmental causes, are a case in point. Altruists can be quite insufferable, despite their strong commitments and selfless dedication.
Maybe we need a registration system- You can register as an altruist or a selfish person, and the rest of the world can avoid you on that basis. Perhaps uniforms would help, or a “psych bracelet” which says which mental type you are to paramedics.
Self-interest isn’t a crime- It’s unavoidable. Altruism isn’t a crime- It’s an important mechanism for social supports that otherwise wouldn’t even have been invented.
For soundtracks, see “The Greatest Love of All”, which to this day can be used as a laxative, and “We are the World”, that strange mix of millionaires and altruism in the world’s least altruistic media.
Suggestion- Be yourself, and allow other people to be themselves. It’s simpler. Also remember that “small minded” also refers to not understanding the limitations of others.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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