Psychology Magazine

Altruistic Behaviors Relieve Physical Pain.

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds
From Wang et al., the fascinating observation that altruistic behavior diminishes both acute and chronic pain by damping activity in brain areas responsible for subjective pain.
Significance
For centuries, scientists have pondered why people would incur personal costs to help others and the implications for the performers themselves. While most previous studies have suggested that those who perform altruistic actions receive direct or indirect benefits that could compensate for their cost in the future, we offer another take on how this could be understood. We examine how altruistic behaviors may influence the performers’ instant sensation in unpleasant situations, such as physical pain. We find consistent behavioral and neural evidence that in physically threatening situations acting altruistically can relieve painful feelings in human performers. These findings shed light on the psychological and biological mechanisms underlying human prosocial behavior and provide practical insights into pain management.
Abstract
Engaging in altruistic behaviors is costly, but it contributes to the health and well-being of the performer of such behaviors. The present research offers a take on how this paradox can be understood. Across 2 pilot studies and 3 experiments, we showed a pain-relieving effect of performing altruistic behaviors. Acting altruistically relieved not only acutely induced physical pain among healthy adults but also chronic pain among cancer patients. Using functional MRI, we found that after individuals performed altruistic actions brain activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and bilateral insula in response to a painful shock was significantly reduced. This reduced pain-induced activation in the right insula was mediated by the neural activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), while the activation of the VMPFC was positively correlated with the performer’s experienced meaningfulness from his or her altruistic behavior. Our findings suggest that incurring personal costs to help others may buffer the performers from unpleasant conditions.

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