Why is traditional altruism so ineffective?

While this question may sound like what you would hear in philosophy classes, Harvard’s Psychology Professor Joshua Greene took an experimental approach to respond, using the development of neural imaging techniques and the discovery of synaptic plasticity. By incorporating new neuroscience technology, Greene was able to embark his journey in a new field of psychology research, moral cognition, which explores the underlying cognitive mechanisms of moral judgment and decision making primarily through functional neuroimaging and behavioral experiments.

For instance, Greene experimented by having two groups of subjects play a game where four subjects are each given 10 dollars and are given two options: either invest into the common lot, which will be doubled and divided by four to be given evenly amongst the subjects, or keep your own money without investing as you can make money from others’ investments. However, one group had to make a decision within 10 seconds, while the other group did not have such time constraint and was encouraged to carefully ponder over all options before making one’s judgment. The data showed that instinctively, people had a tendency to cooperate, as people with the constraint invested, which eventually lead to a greater sum, while those without the time constraint held their cards. (Nature article by Professor Greene.)

While this may seem to infer that intuitive decision making may serve us well, his experiment with intergroup-harmony (us vs them) proved otherwise, where people’s intuitive in-group loyalty lead to hostility between communities. Hence, he gave a sound conclusion that as a citizen of an ever growing society with interactions that were not thought of by our ancestors, we can no longer rely on our amygdala, which is part of the ancient subcortical area of our brain, and continue to rely on intuitive decisions for moral judgments. We must train ourselves to consciously think and deliberate to act rationally instead of making split second decisions It may not be automatic, nor is it always going to make the right decision, but it is malleable and bound to make a more utilitarian decision.

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We have entered an era where we are all inevitably connected in this common ground

Professor Greene further supported the temporal influence on decision making by showing fMRI scans, which have revealed that there is indeed a common pattern of underlying neural activity. Greene called this network the dual-process model of moral cognition, where the amygdala and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex send a unique judgmental signal to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the final hub that eventually determines one’s judgment. The amygdala, which is commonly known to be activated in response to fear, was shown to be active when one is pressed to make an intuitive judgment due to temporal pressure. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, has been found to be dominantly active when one was given time to think rationally about each option before making one’s judgment. Unsurprisingly, the anterior cingulate cortex, which has been found to be active when the subject detects an error between conflicting thoughts, displayed increased activity along with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, indeed showing that a calculation was involved when one was given the time to make one’s judgment. Hence, there were essentially two tracks of judgment: the fast track that goes from the amygdala to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the slow track that goes from the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

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vmPFC = ventromedial Prefrontal cortex, ACG = Anterior Cingulate Gyrus, AMY = Amygdala

His recent work indeed reflected this, where his undergraduate student working on her senior thesis went to Tibet to interview Buddhist monks on which decision they would make if they were confronted with the trolley dilemma, where one could either watch a trolley kill five people or push a man big enough to stop the trolley to save five people. In Boston, around 15% of people have said they will push the big man down the bridge, while in contrary, 81% of Buddhist monks have revealed that they would push the big man, as they have learned that saving more lives is a more noble cause, even if it disturbs us emotionally. The Buddhists’ response showed how malleable dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the most recently evolved area of our brain could be. Understanding the mechanics of our brain could help us act beyond our emotional desires and make the decision that best serves the whole.

With a lever, it may be easier, but what if with people?


As shown by these research, we are naturally drawn to altruism that emotionally resonates with us because we are innately reliant on our amygdala to make moral decisions, as they have kept us safe for so long. However, with the dynamics of the world changing, we need to take the time to practice using dorsolateral prefrontal cortex by taking time to have rational discussions, listen to others, and instead of making swift decisions, practice consciously mulling over each option to make a decision that serves not only ourselves or our groups, but also the whole community around us well. This is the model of Tufts Effective Altruism is striving for and what Professor Greene believes will change the world.


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