We all like to think that being kind, responsible, and fair will lead to a happy life. But what if we’re wrong? What if nice guys really do finish last? A new study published in Nature Human Behavior suggests that those who value economic equity, at their brain’s core, are more likely to be depressed. Those who prefer everything for themselves tend to be happier.
According to the model of “social value orientation,” humans can be placed into three rough categories, based on their reactions to economic inequity. 60% of people are pro-socials, meaning they prefer resources to be distributed equally among everyone. 30% are individualists, meaning they are primarily concerned with maximizing their own resources. Roughly 10% are competitive; to them, the most important outcome is that they have more than other people.
In 2010, Dr. Masahiko Haruno suggested in Nature Neuroscience that primal brain structures like the amygdala “lie at the core of prosocial orientation.” His research group found that, when exposed to economic inequity, prosocials have strong activation of the amygdala, an evolutionally ancient region of the brain associated with automatic feelings of stress. In a simulation where others received more money than they received, the pro-social amygdalae were activated. When they received more money than others in the simulation, they had amygdala activation again, suggesting automatic feelings of stress or guilt. The individualists, on the other hand, only had strong amygdala activation when they were the victims of the inequity. The individualist amygdala was relatively unfazed when the individualist unfairly got more money than another person. Both groups had amygdalae that were sensitive to being victims, but the prosocials were uniquely sensitive to economic inequity that benefitted them financially. They had guilty amygdalae. To read more from Jack Turban, click here.