The Kind Brain: Empathic concern motivates altruism

Why do we self-sacrifice to help others in distress? Recent brain imaging research suggests people do it for others, and not for themselves. Empathic concern motivates costly altruism. When given an opportunity to exercise altruism, brain regions for promoting social attachment and caregiving, rather than those for situational aversion.

In other words, “I want to help” trumps “I don’t want to see that.”


Why do we self-sacrifice to help others in distress? Two competing theories have emerged, one suggesting that prosocial behavior is primarily motivated by feelings of empathic other-oriented concern, the other that we help mainly because we are egoistically focused on reducing our own discomfort. Here we explore the relationship between costly altruism and these two sub-processes of empathy, specifically drawing on the caregiving model to test the theory that trait empathic concern (e.g. general tendency to have sympathy for another) and trait personal distress (e.g. predisposition to experiencing aversive arousal states) may differentially drive altruistic behavior. We find that trait empathic concern – and not trait personal distress – motivates costly altruism, and this relationship is supported by activity in the ventral tegmental area, caudate and subgenual anterior cingulate, key regions for promoting social attachment and caregiving. Together, this data helps identify the behavioral and neural mechanisms motivating costly altruism, while demonstrating that individual differences in empathic concern-related brain responses can predict real prosocial choice.

Source: Empathic concern drives costly altruism, NeuroImage, 01/15/2015