People make their best decisions when faced with these 2 outcomes

Photo: Kyle Glenn

Our brains reach peak performance when another person’s wellbeing is on the line. That’s the surprising conclusion reached by a new study just released by the Society for Neuroscience.

To a certain extent, we’re all primarily looking out for ourselves. It isn’t a stretch to say that from the moment the average adult wakes up in the morning to the time their head hits the pillow, that individual is spending the vast majority of their time trying to improve their own life, whether that be financially (going to work), physically (working out), or mentally (meditation, relaxation). It sounds somewhat selfish written in those terms, but it isn’t; everyone needs to take care of themselves.

This tendency has been proven time and time again in experimental settings as well. For example, one prior study showed that people learn the rules of a game much faster if they have an opportunity to win some money for themselves in comparison to an opportunity to win money for someone else.

However, this new research suggests that all gets thrown out the window once another person’s wellbeing is at stake. A team of researchers from the University of Vienna formulated an experiment to assess and compare how efficiently people make decisions and learn across two scenarios: to avoid someone else being harmed or to avoid personally being harmed.

Across the board, participants made better choices and learned more efficiently while trying to ensure another person didn’t get hurt. 

These results are astounding on several levels. Debates have raged for centuries regarding the true nature of man. Are we naturally compassionate and caring? Or inclined more toward ruthless self-interest? While the answers to these enormous questions are likely nuanced and come in shades of gray, this study suggests that even on a neurological level our brains kick into an extra gear when we’re responsible for someone else’s well being.

To come to these conclusions, a group of 96 participants was hooked up to an fMRI scanner while playing an electric shock game. During each round, players had to choose between two “abstract symbols.” If chosen, one of those symbols would frequently produce a non-painful electric shock, while the other symbol sparked a legitimately painful electric shock, but far less often.

Half the time participants were playing the game for themselves and received any subsequent shocks. But, during other rounds subjects were playing for someone else; a wrong answer would result in a stranger being shocked (and potentially hurt).

A thorough assessment of players’ performances using a computational model revealed they made the “optimal choice” far more often when another person’s safety was in jeopardy. 

Neurologically, when subjects were making choices that impacted another person, their brains showed collaborative activity between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (an area of the brain involved in decision making) and the temporoparietal junction. The TF is believed to play a big part in how an individual assesses and interprets the emotions of others.

These fMRI results indicate that when our actions determine another person’s safety, the “social brain” activates. In simpler terms, when someone else’s well being is at risk, an additional brain region becomes involved in the decision-making process.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Neuroscience.