A recent study suggests that paying your taxes might actually make you feel good. Researchers at the University of Oregon gave 19 female students $100, then presented them with the opportunity to make anonymous donations to a food bank, recording their brain activity in the process. When the women made donations, the areas of their brains that lit up were the same as those associated with pleasure and reward. That finding is consistent with similar research, such as that conducted by James Rilling of Emory University, suggesting a link between altruism and positive emotions.
But the Oregon researchers also levied a tax on the money they’d given out, telling participants the taxed money would go to the food bank as well (which it did). They found that in this situation, the brain activity was the same, though not as strong, as when people gave money on their own accord.
Ulrich Mayr, one of the study’s authors, says these results suggest there may be such a thing as “pure altruism,” as opposed to altruistic acts performed for selfish motives, such as the desire to boost one’s reputation, feel good about oneself, or receive something in return for a good deed. Even though the taxed students didn’t have a say in their giving and received nothing in return for it—not even recognition of their generosity or the personal satisfaction of knowing they’d tried to do something nice for others—their brains indicated that they still felt good.
“That is the evidence you would need to say this kind of ‘pure altruism’ exists,” says Mayr. “This does suggest we have a fundamental capacity to sense the well-being of others, and that this capacity is funneled through the same mechanisms that track your own well-being.”
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Jason Marsh is the editor in chief of Greater Good.