Hard-wiring of selfish and co-operative behaviour

By John BristowComments Off on Hard-wiring of selfish and co-operative behaviour

Selfish and Co-operative Behaviour Hard-wired or acquired?

The studies below show how the reward and attachment systems within the brain are activated when people manifest competitive or co-operative and generous behaviour. But also  they show how individuals differ in how often and in what context they show one or both. This seems to be linked to what we learn and acquire from experience with others in socio-cultural contexts, which may also involve neo-cortical or pre-frontal areas of the brain. These can be activated with or without awareness, but are a higher level and a later stage in the hierarchy of brain processes.   Clearly some societies bring out and reinforce the competitive or self-protective side of human nature more than the co-operative leading to a bigger difference between the have’s and have not’s and a break down in community and increase in suffering of the deprived and associated social costs (see Richard Wilkinson’s work on income inequality and the prevalence of physical and mental disease and low score’s on the UN index of healthy society – and his recent, co-authored book Spirit Level). Rampant capitalism and the continuous drive to more growth (partly to pay off debt) has led to hyper-consumerism and hyper-individualism and the destruction of habitat and societies.      The National Institutes of Health (in the US) conducted a series of brain scan experiments to see if co-operative behaviour was hard-wired (in the sense of being accompanied by activity in a different brain area). 19 people were asked to choose between donating $128 to charity or pocketing it for themselves. When people took the money the parts of the brain normally associated with pleasures such as eating and sex lit up; while with those who gave it away the areas of the brain associated with bonding and attachment also lit up. These findings indicate that donating to societal causes recruited two types of reward systems: the VTA–striatum mesolimbic network, which also was involved in pure monetary rewards, and the subgenual area, which was specific for donations and plays key roles in social attachment and affiliative reward mechanisms in humans and other animals. (Jorge Moll et al “Human Fronto-Mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103 (2006) www.pnas.org/content/103/42/15623.full ). Also quoted in Raj Patel The Value of Nothing: How to reshape market economy and redefine democracy (Picador 2009) p32. This seems to link to the distinction between the lust hormones and those of bonding and trust building (Oxytocin). I have read also that C. Jung the psychoanalyst thought of the Oedipal conflict of Freud in terms of learning to distinguish between affection and bonding on the one hand and sexual attraction on the other (possibly around age 5 and then again during puberty) – and then how to integrate the two in a single relationship as appropriate. It also links in my mind to the debate about selfish and co-operative genes. Bonding of course is part of Bowlby’s attachment theory drawn from the literature on studies of animals and his own work on the separation experienced by infants and children during the evacuation from London in WW2; he contrasts this with Freud’s reduction of human instinctive behaviours to sex and aggression. The co-operative parts of the brain and the hormones supporting these also seem linked to the natural pre-disposition towards reciprocity in normally developed people as part of the survival of our own (and to varying extents other) species through the group (Darwin).  Reciprocity means giving with the expectation that it will not be lost, and is reflected in the warm feeling often associated with giving as the behavioural economists describe it. “Reciproco” in Latin means moving back and forth (re as back and pro as forward) as if in a dance. Reciprocal exchange, together with family or tribal connections, are the basis of early human societies before the emergence of the state and the rule of law (and associated national identity) and the institutional basis of social co-ordination they provide (see F. Fukayama’s new book on the Origins of Political Order). The market place is another form of co-ordination. Social networks, and innovation or learning networks, nowadays enabled by the internet, are based on reciprocal exchange as well. Recently the market has been given more emphasis as a means of social co-ordination often to the partial exclusion of the others, such as morality and the co-ordinating functions of social norms and beliefs (see 2010 Reith lectures supported by the BBC). The question is how far norms and institutions bring out the best in people and reduce the need for drastic self-protective measures. The use of the internet as a platform for reciprocal exchange and for forming local groups for this has challenged the classic theory of economic man as a rational selfish person who strives for maximum profit.  A. Maslow said that many of the institutions of today meet only basic human needs rather than those that bring out the best qualites.                             The well known experiment in behavioural economics, (the “ultimate game”) repeated the world over shows how empathy combines with a sense of fairness in proposing and responding with acceptance. One person is asked to divide a sum of moneybetween another person and themselves with the basic rule that if the offer is not accepted then neither gets any money. While the degree of co-opeation varies, 50% of proposers make an offer the other is likely to accept as fair and most responders reject an unfair offer. A n0rm of “as you treat me so I will treat you” is generally what is communicated by offers and responses. (see Bart Wilson  http://business.theatlantic.com/2009/01/fairs_fair.php ) Over time this builds reciprocity, and reduces uncertainty in human exchanges. e-Bay operates on this basis, and the minimum amount of agreed rules and infrastructure needed varies with the type of transaction (zopa.com for borrowing and lending money between peers or a mutual credit clearing association may need more).                                                  Clearly people and species differ in the degree of co-operative behaviour. With humans this is probably due more to what is acquired and learnt through interaction with others in different contexts than individual differences in genetic predisposition. We and other primates need to learn how to relate to survive, and acquire different strategies on the way, including how to deal with the dilemma between competition and co-operation. This has been shown in studies of the social groups of primates and how this links to the neo-cortex (reflection, planning and regulation of emotion) rather than to lower level hard wiring. Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes  by Frans de de Waal   and The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society   and The Primate Mind: Built to Connect with Other Minds  and Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton Science Library) All available on Amazon. Robin Dunbar found that there was a correlation between the size of the neo-cortex in primatess and the size of their social groups or networks in which they could maintain  stable relationships (for humans around 150). Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist and a specialist in primate behaviour. He is currently Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and the Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology of the University of Oxford and the Co-director of the British Academy Centenary Research Project.                                                                         For studies of infant humans learning all this see V. Reddy’s book How Infants know Minds Harvard University Press. Also Victoria Talwar and her colleagues at McGill universtiy in their studies of children around the world have shown how lying is used and learnt more for protection in schools where punishment is oppressive or physically abusive rather than based on more undersatndable and acceptable consequences. What is acquired from experience is very significant with humans. (see http://www.talwarresearch.com/ )                   In traditional spiritual practices generosity without the feel good factor and love without attachment are known to give us different capacities and an inner freedom, the effects of which can be shared with others. (see the writings of the current Dalai Lama in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition – HH Dalai Lama & H.C.Cutler The Art of Happiness Hodder & Stoughton 1998 – and the teaching material for our times collected in the publications of the late Idries Shah in the Sufi tradition (www.octagonpress.com ). Paradoxically of course if one seeks any kind of result from generosity of this kind it does not bring out the capacity in people to love in a way that is free of any such expectation.

Views of Human Nature
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