Altruism – Capable of learning?

A new study is soon to be launched into the effects, if any, of meditation and likewise on altruistic behaviours. The study, to be conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison will use fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to see the effects in the brain when acting on altruistic behaviours. They aim to see if the practice of such meditation can influence a person’s behaviour to promote altruistic acts (Rattue, 2012).

Let’s first consider what Altruism actually is. First described as the ‘self-sacrifice for the benefit of others’ by Auguste Comte in 1851, its given meaning was considered to be a rather extreme point of view. The now much preferred meaning given to Altruism would be a ‘behaviour that promotes the survival chances of others at a cost to one’s own’, and is used mainly amongst today’s scientific community (

However some would suggest that Altruism is not at all possible and such acts exist as a means of benefiting one’s self. I refer to of course, as well as many others, Cialdini’s negative state relief model. Cialdini suggests that we in our minds weigh up the positives and negatives of helping someone and furthermore would only consider helping if there were no other alternative. Therefore only if the person is feeling a stress for observing someone that needs help and will only help if they feel that stress can’t be relieved without helping (C. Daniel Batson, 1989).

Negative State Relief Model

Cialdini's Negative State Relief Model

Contrary to this, some new research into altruism has shown that there were differences shown on an fMRI scan between brain activity when acting out altruistically and egoistically. This study, conducted at Duke University in 2007, invited 45 participants and observed them play a computer game where at points they would be rewarded monetarily for themselves, or for a chosen charity. fMRI scans taken as these activities took place showed that although they were expecting activity in the brains reward centres, they also found that another part of the brain was involved; this part of the brain, the pSTC (posterior superior temporal cortex), also appeared to be rather sensitive to the difference between acts of altruism and egoism (Science Daily, 2007).

Which brings us back nicely to look at the study this article discusses. The team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison expect to see a difference between altruistic and egoistic acts as in the Duke University study, however they also plan to change a person’s predisposition towards acting altruistically by introducing them to techniques such as ‘compassion meditation’. Using a combination of $1.7 million, more than 1000 participants, some randomly activated voice recordings and an fMRI scan, they hope to observe a correlation between acts of altruism and corresponding brain activity (Rattue, 2012).

Although with all things considered, it would seem that this study is a little far-fetched. That is to say that for a start, we cannot even be sure that there is a difference in the mind between altruistic and egoistic behaviours and for something so randomly placed and unpredictable, can it be measured effectively? How could this benefit society? We could all start recommending that people spend some time meditating on a regular basis to help improve social happiness, but further than this I do not see much else to propose from the results. It would be my opinion that this huge amount of money could be better spent in a more significant area of research. (n.d.). Retrieved from

C. Daniel Batson, J. G. (1989). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Negative-State Relief and the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis, 6, 922-933.

Rattue, P. (2012, 02 04). Does A Lab-Measured Compassionate Brain Fare Well In Real Life?. Retrieved from Medical News Today:

Science Daily. (2007, 01 21). Activation Of Brain Region Predicts Altruism. Retrieved 02 02, 2012, from Science Daily:


About DJPsych

... And now I find my self in my first year at Bangor University (Wales, United Kingdom), studying Psychology with Neuropsychology With the long term goal of gaining my Doctorate. In the shorter term however, I intend on sharing with you all, my thoughts and opinions across a wide variety of subjects within the vast realm that is 'Psychology'. However, if you want to hear (Or indeed read), my opinion on wether Psychology can be called a 'Science', then it would probably be best to email me (: View all posts by DJPsych

2 responses to “Altruism – Capable of learning?

  • James

    Interesting blog 🙂 Perhaps there is a biological reason as to why some people are more altruistic that others. Perhaps it is built in us from evolution, such as the concept of reciprocal altruism. This is when an organism acts in a manner that temporarily reduces its fitness while increasing another organism’s fitness, with the expectation that the other organism will act in a similar manner at a later time (Trivers, 1971).

    As for the study in Wisconsin, it may be too far fetched to be able to measure the differences in the brain for more altruistic behaviour. Maybe the pSTC will show more or less activity on the fMRI with more or less altruistic behaviour.

    From a personal point of view, I never used to be a very altruistic person when I was a teenager (at all). But after leaving college, and getting a job in retail, over the years I have become more helpful with members of the public. For instance, me and my friends were staying in a hotel and a woman was struggling with her bags. Straight away me and my friend mark (who has also worked in retail for years) went and helped the woman with her bags and the other 5 of my friends, stood there and did nothing.

    Perhaps over the years I have been programmed to be more helpful because it is my job? Or maybe I am fearless of the public after working on the help desk in the Birkenhead branch. perhaps some people are genetically more helpful and that is why I got a job in retail? the results of this study may find out 🙂

    Trivers, R.L. (1971). “The evolution of reciprocal altruism”. Quarterly Review of Biology 46: 35–57.

  • Great blog posts! « Anthony's Research Methods Blog

    […] Dan excellently compares past social models of altruism to contemporary imaging research on the subject; an important practice in science is to observe how models of behavior square with other domains of research. […]

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