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Vicarious Neural Response to Others as a Basis for Altruistic Behavior

Principal Investigators:

Jason Mitchell, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Harvard University
Jamil Zaki, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Psychology, Harvard University

Altruism is a central human virtue that is critical for maintaining and improving social bonds. Research in psychology and economics suggests that altruism is not a finite resource; instead, situational factors can "amplify" altruism within individuals and also "spread" it across individuals. Nonetheless, the psychological mechanisms underlying altruistic behavior remain unclear. Cognitive neuroscience research provides a clue about what these mechanisms might be, by demonstrating that individuals vicariously share each other's emotions, through a common neural coding of self and other experiences. These data suggest an intriguing hypothesis: affect sharing could render altruism intrinsically rewarding, because altruists vicariously share the positive emotions resulting from their good deeds.

The proposed research will test this hypothesis, by examining the link between altruistic behavior and neural markers of shared affect. Individuals will be scanned with fMRI while they receive prizes themselves and observe others receiving prizes; following this, individuals will make a series of choices about whether to allocate prizes to themselves or to others. We hypothesize that (i) brain regions related to encoding reward will be engaged by both self and other prizes, providing a neural marker of shared positive emotion, (ii) reward-related neural activity will predict subsequent altruistic choices, and (iii) manipulations known to amplify and spread altruism will exert their effects through increases in shared positive affect. Testing these hypotheses will provide novel, generative insights about why people choose to act virtuously, and how virtuous behavior can be increased.


Jason Mitchell has been an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University since 2006. He received his B.A. and M.S. from Yale University in 1997 and his Ph.D. in 2003 from Harvard University, where he worked under the supervision of Dan Schacter. From 2003-2006, he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University, Dartmouth College, and Columbia University. He is the recipient of the 2009 Early Career Award from the International Social Cognition Network and the 2010 Janet Taylor Spence Award for Transformative Early Career Contributions from the Association for Psychological Science. He has served as Associate Editor at NeuroImage (2006-2009) and Cortex (2005-2008) and, in 2008, organized the 2nd annual meeting of the Social & Affective Neuroscience Society in Boston.

Jamil Zaki will receive his Ph.D. in May of 2010 from Columbia University, under the mentorship of Kevin Ochsner. He received his B.A. from Boston University in 2002. As a graduate student, he won the Association for Psychological Science Student Grant Award and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) Outstanding Research Award, and was funded by a predoctoral fellowship from Autism Speaks. Jamil has published empirical research in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Psychological Science, Emotion, Social Neuroscience, Annals of the New York Academy of Science, and Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience. He will begin a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University in September of 2010, where he will work with Jason Mitchell on the study of shared affect and its relation to altruistic decision-making.

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