A new study published in Science suggests that paying your taxes might actually make you feel good. Researchers gave students at the University of Oregon $100, then recorded their brain activity when they were given the chance to make anonymous donations to a food bank with some of that money. When they made their 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 researchers here also sometimes levied a tax on the money they'd given out, telling their participants the taxed money would also go to the food bank (which it did). They found that the brain activity was the same, though not as strong, as when people gave money on their own accord.
Reporting on this finding in today's The New York Times, John Tierney writes that the results "bolster the case for 'pure altruism'"–as opposed to altruistic acts performed for selfish motives–"because the student paying the tax could not take personal credit for deciding to feed the hungry." In other words, even though they received nothing in return for their money–not even recognition for their generosity or the personal satisfaction of knowing they'd tried to do something nice for others–the participants still felt good.
Tierney quotes Ulrich Mayr, one of the study's authors, as saying, "The most surprising result is that these basic pleasure centers in the brain don't respond only to what's good for yourself. … They also seem to be tracking what's good for other people, and this occurs even when the subjects don't have a say in what happens."
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Jason Marsh is the editor in chief of Greater Good.