Altruism & the Brain: Why Charities Should Excel at the Social Web

The BBC The Guardian and others (here, here, here) have written about research at Duke Medical Centre which suggests researchers have found the part of the brain responsible for altruism. I just want to digest this with two things in mind: other ways to understand the research and why these things might mean charities and non profit groups are brilliantly equipped to make best use of the social web….


The experiment involved volunteers and a computer game which produced income for a charity they had chosen. It found that watching or playing the game triggered a part of the brain called the posterior superior temporal sulcus – the bit which reporters are now crediting as the posssible root of altruism. The research found that the volunteers where this was most active were also more likely to be altruistic.  The interesting part of the report is that this area of the brain is normally associated with understanding relationships and the key quote here is from one of the researchers Dharol Tankersley:

We believe that the ability to perceive other people’s actions as meaningful is critical to altruism.

If this research means anything it appears to be saying that those with a more sophisticated understanding of social relationships are more likely to score well on an altruism test. This is different from finding a part of the brain for altruism.

If you strip this back it is pretty obvious that individuals with a limited understanding of others are unlikely to do things to benefit others. Why? Because the purpose of it is literally beyond their comprehension.

Flip it the other way and you make the case that those with the most sophisticated understanding of social situations are more likely to do things for others because it is most likely to make sense to them. They have mental tools better attuned for empathy, for relating to others, for calculating knock on consequencs of acts of generosity. So what is my point re the social web?

These are the people with the most sophisticted and complex (dare I say evolved?) ways to understand and act in the social world. These are also the people which you should find in a greater proportion in charities and non-profit organisations. Yes you’ve guessed it: these are the folk who should find it easiest to grasp the social web.

There’s loads more to say about this (especially on altruism), but I think I’ll leave it there for the moment. Comments appreciated.

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