Altruism costs—the cheap signal from amygdala

Publication Karolinska Institutet

Katarina Gospic, Marcus Sundberg, Johanna Maeder, Peter Fransson, Predrag Petrovic, Gunnar Isacsson, Anders Karlström, Martin Ingvar.

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci (2014) 9 (9): 1325-1332


When people state their willingness to pay for something, the amount usually differs from the behavior in a real purchase situation. The discrepancy between a hypothetical answer and the real act is called hypothetical bias. We investigated neural processes of hypothetical bias regarding monetary donations to public goods using fMRI with the hypothesis that amygdala codes for real costs. Real decisions activated amygdala more than hypothetical decisions. This was observed for both accepted and rejected proposals. The more the subjects accepted real donation proposals the greater was the activity in rostral anterior cingulate cortex—a region known to control amygdala but also neural processing of the cost-benefit difference. The presentation of a charitable donation goal evoked an insula activity that predicted the later decision to donate. In conclusion, we have identified the neural mechanisms underlying real donation behavior, compatible with theories on hypothetical bias. Our findings imply that the emotional system has an important role in real decision making as it signals what kind of immediate cost and reward an outcome is associated with.