Master of Behavioral and Decision Sciences Capstones

Date of this Version


Document Type



It is hypothesized that empathic concern evokes altruistic motivation (Batson, 1991). As we can see in our daily life, stimulating empathy to the suffering is a common advertising strategy for charitable donation. While empathizing, we adopt the perspective of others and share their feelings so we can understand their need. Then, these empathic responses motivate us to have concern for others’ well-being and save them from any negative outcomes. However, whether altruistic behaviors are truly other-oriented or actually self-benefit motivated is still controversial. In this study, we focus on the empathy network in the human brain and use Multi- Voxel Pattern Analysis (MVPA) to provide new evidence in this debate. Adapting an established protocol of empathy-for-pain studies (Singer et al. 2004, 2006; Hein et al. 2010), we tested whether the neural activities of empathy can predict altruistic behaviors and how kin relationship modulate the willingness to take altruistic actions. In the experiment, daughters faced two types of conditions: in “Forced Choices” trials, subjects either passively received the shock or observed their mothers or strangers receiving the shock; in “Free Choices” trials, daughters had to actively decide whether to receive the shock themselves or to defer the shock to mothers and strangers. We find that when daughter chose to sacrifice themselves to receive the shock, the neural pattern in empathy network is more similar to when daughters themselves were in pain rather than observing others in pain. These finding suggest that altruistic choices are self-oriented process. We do not find a distinct neural pattern when subjects had to make the altruistic choices facing their mother or a stranger, however, the shock deferring rate to stranger is significantly higher than mother at the behavior level.



Date Posted: 20 November 2019