Archive for ‘Research’

August 15, 2011

The Brain Finds Paying Taxes Pleasurable

The prestigious peer-reviewed journal Science published a paper by University of Oregon researchers who found that paying taxes was associated with pleasure in the brain. Though the article was published in 2007, their findings are interesting, and appears to have relevance to political issues today (especially the part about egoists).

A cognitive psychologist and two economists placed subjects in an magnetic resonance Imaging (MRI) machine after giving them $100. While participants watched their money go to the food bank through mandatory taxation, researchers scanned their brain activity using functional imaging. After paying taxes, participants could choose to voluntarily donate more (charity) or keep the remainder for themselves. Voluntary giving brought the most pleasure, but mandatory giving also significantly increased activation in the pleasure circuit.

The surprising thing to scientists is that mandatory giving brings reward. And even though charity is more pleasurable, the researchers warn against a higher reliance on charitable giving. One of the authors points out that in a voluntary environment, lots of people free-ride and donations fall. The authors report to Science Daily :

“Paying taxes can make citizens happy. People are, to varying degrees, altruists. On top of that they like that warm glow they get from charitable giving. Until now we couldn’t trace that in the brain. Neural activation from mandatory taxation helps predict who will give. We could call the people whose brains light up more when money goes to charity than to themselves altruists. The others are egoists. Based on what we saw in the experiments, we can use this classification to predict how much people are willing to give when the choice is theirs.”

The same pleasure circuit is activated in response to food and sex. So want to feel some pleasure while making the world a better place? Pay your taxes and donate a little extra voluntarily. Now what to do about all those egoists…

August 10, 2011

Social Class and Social Behavior

Why, George… you’re worth more dead than alive.”

Mr. Potter’s famous line from It’s a Wonderful Life was indicative of him being a greedy, selfish man, although anyone who has seen the movie does not need to hear it to have formed that impression of him.  Mr. Potter wanted to foreclose on cash-strapped home-owners.  He stated that providing assistance to the less well-off would create “a discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class”.  He did what he could to profit and benefit from the people.  All were means to prop up his greed, an end that would not and could not be sated.  He became the perfect example of what Americans hate about the rich and what the socially-conscious rich have tried not to become.

Mr. Potter is also an extreme example of the cognition and behavior exhibited by the upper-class.  Well, at least that’s what has been posited by a recent study published in Current Directions in Psychological ScienceThe study, headed by Michael Kraus, Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, argues that social class involves more than just the quality and quantity of material possessions.  Rather they argue an individual’s social class is a cultural identity that influences how one thinks, feels and behaves.  Although a loud, resounding ‘Duh’ is probably echoing in your head right now, the study does make surprising observations regarding the more subtle aspects of social behavior.

For example, there were observable differences in nonverbal social engagement.  Specifically, when two participants of different social class were videotaped while meeting each other for the first time the upper-class participant showed little non-verbal engagement (ie: playing with their phone, not maintaining eye contact) while the lower-class participant presented in the opposite fashion (ie: responsive head nods, laughter).

It was also observed that upper-class participants were less accurate in judging the emotions of others via facial cues and less likely to be charitable than lower-class participants, who tended to be very empathically accurate and helpful towards others.

What could be the source of these differences?  Well, the authors postulate that it has everything to do with available resources.  Specifically, upper-class individuals tend to have enough resources to ensure a comfortable existence and have thus turned their cognitive focus inward toward the self.  The opposite seems to be the case for lower-class individuals, who tend not to have the resources to ensure survival and thus have to rely on others.  This would also provide explanation as to why upper-class individuals tend to attribute another individual’s problem to their disposition (“those unemployed are just lazy parasites”) while lower-class individuals would attribute the problem to an external situation.

What implications could these have for public policy?  Given the context of this blog, I’m pretty sure you have a good idea of one.  Well, there’s no need for speculation!  Keltner lays is out pretty simply:

“One clear policy implication is, the idea of nobless oblige or trickle-down economics, certain versions of it, is bull.  Our data say you cannot rely on the wealthy to give back. The ‘thousand points of light’—this rise of compassion in the wealthy to fix all the problems of society—is improbable, psychologically.”

There you have it folks.  Considering that the ideal of noblesse oblige has been the basis of our domestic economic policy for the past three decades, do we really need to ask how income distribution became so unequal?

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