Researchers Explore Positive Side Of Human Nature
By LaTina Emerson
Psychologists and other researchers have focused for generations on human dysfunction, working to understand and treat mental illness and a range of antisocial behaviors.
But a growing number of researchers are shifting their focus to study the opposite side of the coin — positive emotions and prosocial behavior. Increased funding is helping to nurture a field that tries to answer questions such as why people share, work together and give to charity, said Elliott Albers, director of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience at Georgia State University.
“To truly understand the brain, you need to understand both positive and negative emotions,” Albers said. “It’s important because if you want to understand what causes the brain to break and what causes disease and mental disorders, you need to understand how it normally works.”
Though still a young field, positive psychology has found its way into therapy sessions and school curricula. Businesses, including Fed Ex and IBM, have hired “happiness coaches” to work with employees, and the U.S. Army has incorporated the field into its soldier fitness program, according to the American Psychological Association.
Georgia State scientists are searching for answers on how the brain interprets and expresses positive emotions such as empathy and compassion. They’re also studying prosocial behaviors, or behaviors that benefit others, such as cooperation, altruism and sharing.
The John Templeton Foundation, which has been pushing for more research on positive emotions, recently awarded Georgia State’s Center for Behavioral Neuroscience a $3.4 million grant to support several projects.
Here’s a look at some of the research being done at Georgia State:
The duo’s previous work focused on people who struggle to understand and express emotion, including people with autism, traumatic brain injuries, brain tumors and developmental brain disorders.
They have developed 10-second videos of “friendly and unfriendly” shapes they show to participants lying in a Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine, a scanner that allows researchers to view images of brain activity in real time. After each video, the subjects answer questions.
“We can look and see which brain regions are activated during the task to understand what parts of the brain are coming together to help them interpret the videos,” King said.
“You’d be surprised that a lot of college students will say things like, ‘That triangle was being mean. He hit that circle. Why was he chasing him?’ They infer intentions, feelings and thoughts even when looking at little shapes.”
Some participants will be given the hormone oxytocin, believed to promote bonding and other behaviors, to determine if it changes brain activation during the task. Other participants will receive a placebo.
“The prediction is the oxytocin will enhance the social interpretation system in the brain,” Robins said. “We’re hoping this study will help us understand social behavior in healthy individuals. In addition, this work may guide us toward some treatment studies we can do with groups who have disrupted empathy and social understanding, like brain injuries, autism, etc.”
Sarah Brosnan of the Department of Psychology and Bill Hopkins of Georgia State’s Neuroscience Institute are working with Michael Beran at the university’s Language Research Center to study how primates make decisions about cooperation.
Like the humans in the empathy study, some of the chimpanzees, capuchin monkeys and rhesus monkeys will be given oxytocin to see if it changes how they behave compared to subjects who receive a placebo.
“I’m particularly interested in whether or not these hormones are part of the mechanism that allows individuals to decide when to cooperate, with whom to cooperate, and so forth,” Brosnan said. “In particular, I want to know if oxytocin will make individuals more likely to cooperate.”
Brosnan will use techniques from experimental economics, which uses simple games to explore how individuals make complex decisions
In one of the games, known as the assurance game or stag hunt, two hunters in the forest can successfully bring down a stag, or adult deer, if they work together.
The primates will play a computerized version using icons to symbolize the stag or a hare. If both players coordinate and choose the stag, they each receive four pieces of food. Choosing the hare is the safe bet because it doesn’t require cooperation, and each player gets a piece of food no matter what their partner chooses.
“The tension in the game is do you trust your partner to keep going for the big reward? If so, you should chose the stag. If not, do you take a hare and leave your partner with nothing?” Brosnan said.
In previous studies, Brosnan tested cooperation in four primate species – humans, chimps, capuchins and rhesus monkeys – using the assurance game.
She found that with the right circumstances, all subjects find the best payoff outcome requires cooperating. Capuchin monkeys performed poorest on the task, and rhesus monkeys performed as well as humans.
Understanding charitable giving is important because it accounts for 2 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product and will need to increase as government support for many organizations dwindles, Price said.
Price and his collaborators have partnered with nonprofits in Atlanta and nationwide to study why people give to these organizations and what nonprofits can do to increase donations.
So far, they’ve learned people respond to both the price of donating and the direct benefit to an individual. Charitable raffles are successful because of the potential to gain something of value. Also, people will increase their donation to acquire something they want, such as a commemorative sweatshirt, and they’re more generous if given a small token of appreciation such as address labels, Price said.
People are also more likely to give if an attractive woman asks them, though this only has short-term benefits. And they’re more likely to give if they can identify with the person asking them, the study showed. But the impacts can differ depending on whether a person already has a history of giving to a particular organization.
“I think what we’ve learned is there’s no one motive necessarily for giving,” Price said. “The motives are much deeper than what we think, and we’re only scratching the surface on what we know.”
Price is collaborating with researchers at the University of Chicago and University of Wisconsin-Madison on the altruism studies. Their research is supported by a $4.8 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation.
Price and his partners in Chicago and Madison have also studied sharing. The team recently worked with 250 pre-school children at Chicago Heights Early Childhood Center in Chicago Heights, Ill.
In the study, a child was brought into a room with two clear plastic boxes and two plates. The child was told one box belonged to him and the other to a child who wasn’t in the room. Sometimes, the child had a plate full of stickers in front of him, and the absent child’s plate was empty. Sometimes, it was the reverse or some other mix. The distribution of stickers in the boxes also varied.
The child’s task was to tell the researcher how to divvy up the stickers on the plates without dipping into the stickers in the clear boxes.
The study found that the children’s decisions about taking and sharing are affected by the initial distribution of stickers and the choices available to them.
“Whoever has the stickers initially on their plate winds up with slightly more stickers in the end,” Price said.
“We share some, we take some, but we don’t share and take equally,” he said. “If the other person has stickers on their plate, we’ll leave them with more stickers than we’ll give them if we’re sharing. You wind up better if I’m taking from you than if I have to share with you.”
The study also showed sharing is a learned behavior.
“Our parents or society are conditioning us to feel like we need to share and that we shouldn’t take,” Price said. “That children act on such lessons suggests that guilt develops at a very young age.”