How Much Tax is Considered Responsible? The Brain Decides.

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Jonah Lehrer, my hands down favorite neuroscientist, explains the role of altruism and greed in the tax debate and gives a surprising answer to why responsibility is innate to our human experience. In his piece in the Wall Street journal entitled: Are we hardwired to love taxes?, he shared recent brain research that suggest that fairness is an innate human desire and we are unlikely to have a disaster from taxing the rich more than others. Lehrer says, “We typically see ourselves as selfish creatures, driven by our genes to maximize pleasure. We don’t like taxes because they leave us with less to spend on ourselves.”

Lehrer cites research:

In recent years, however, psychologists and neuroscientists have begun dismantling this view of human behavior. We may not be altruistic angels, but neither are we depraved primates. One of the most surprising findings is that people have a natural aversion to inequality. We tend to prefer a world in which wealth is more evenly distributed, even if it means we have to get by with less.

Consider this experiment by a team of scientists at Caltech, published in the journal Nature. The study began with 40 subjects blindly picking ping-pong balls from a hat. Half of the balls were labeled “rich,” while the other half were labeled “poor.” The rich subjects were immediately given $50, while the poor got nothing. Such is life: It’s rarely fair.

The subjects were then put in a brain scanner and given various monetary rewards, from $5 to $20. They were also told about a series of rewards given to a stranger. The first thing the scientists discovered is that the response of the subjects depended entirely on their starting financial position. For instance, people in the “poor” group showed much more activity in the reward areas of the brain (such as the ventral striatum) when given $20 in cash than people who started out with $50. This makes sense: If we have nothing, then every little something becomes valuable.

But then the scientists found something strange. When people in the “rich” group were told that a poor stranger was given $20, their brains showed more reward activity than when they themselves were given an equivalent amount. In other words, they got extra pleasure from the gains of someone with less. “We economists have a widespread view that most people are basically self-interested and won’t try to help other people,” says Colin Camerer, a neuroeconomist at Caltech and co-author of the study. “But if that were true, you wouldn’t see these sorts of reactions to other people getting money.”

What’s driving this charitable brain response? The scientists speculate that people have a natural dislike of inequality. In fact, our desire for equal outcomes is often more powerful (at least in the brain) then our desire for a little extra cash. It’s not that money doesn’t make us feel good — it’s that sharing the wealth can make us feel even better. “What this experiment demonstrates is that context matters,” says Elizabeth Tricomi, the lead author on the paper. “You can completely flip the response of the brain by putting a person in a state of wealth, even if that state is determined by a ping-pong ball.”

Originally published at on November 17, 2010.

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

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