What Drives Us to Do the Right Thing? A look at recent brain research on voluntary giving versus avoiding punishment

What Drives Us to Do the Right Thing?

A look at recent brain research on voluntary giving versus avoiding punishment


Jan. 2, 2014 10:43 a.m. ET

Consider your average preschool, which ends each day with parents picking up their kids. But there’s a problem: A handful of parents are habitually late. The school sends out a note, urging timeliness: “Please be considerate of our wonderful staff who, after a long day of caring for your kids, are tired and want to go home,” etc.This works with some parents, but there are still chronic offenders. The school finally becomes punitive. Parents who are late start getting a fine added to the tuition bill. What happens? Against all seeming logic, the incidence of tardiness increases.

I’ve seen the equivalent in the academic world. Faculty do certain chores spontaneously because they are good departmental citizens. Some do lots, others are slackers, but things get done. Then an administrator pronounces that this voluntary act is now required X times a year. The slackers that had been doing less than X now do the required X. But those who used to do more than X shift to X as well.

These paradoxical effects occur because introducing punishment re-categorizes the behavior. An act that once made you a mensch now makes you an administration toady. When an authoritarian hand imposes a floor of “at least,” recipients of the edict often turn it into a ceiling of “at most.” Show up late at the preschool before the era of fines and you were being inconsiderate. Show up late now and you’re just incurring another preschool expense.

It turns out that doing the right thing voluntarily is very different from doing it to avoid punishment. Recent research even reveals a basis in the brain for this distinction.

In one experiment, a participant in an economic game is given money. In the first round, she chooses whether to share any of it with another anonymous participant. In the second, she makes the same choice knowing that the other player can punish her afterward if he is unhappy. No surprise, the amount shared increases, and the magnitude of that increase indicates the extent of “sanction-induced norm compliance.”

Prior brain imaging work had shown that such compliance was associated with increased activity in a brain region called the right lateral prefrontal cortex (rLPFC). This was truly interesting, given that the prefrontal cortex is involved in impulse control and gratification postponement.

But this was only a correlation between rLPFC activation and sanction-induced norm compliance. Reporting in the journal Science, researchers from the University of Zurich took things a step further, actually controlling activity in the rLPFC by using transcranial direct current stimulation. Depending on the polarity of the current used, they could either activate or inhibit the brain region with the flick of a switch.

When they activated the rLPFC in subjects, sanction-induced norm compliance increased; when they inhibited the rLPFC, the opposite occurred. Altering rLPFC activity didn’t change how punitive participants anticipated the other player would be in response to their offer; it simply changed their degree of compliance to the threat of punishment.

The researchers also were able to demonstrate that this was a social act. Manipulating the rLPFC didn’t change behavior when people played against a computer “preprogrammed to respond in the same way as a human.”

What about voluntary giving? The preschool scenario suggests it wouldn’t be increased by rLPFC stimulation. Different neural circuitry would be involved. Critically, not only did stimulating the rLPFC not increase voluntary sharing; it decreased it (and, conversely, inhibiting the rLPFC increased it).

Einstein once said that you can’t simultaneously prepare for war and peace. There’s something analogous here. This key brain region can’t simultaneously prompt you to do the right thing because it’s the right thing and because otherwise you’re going to get your butt kicked.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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