The Neuroscience of Going from Machiavellian to Magnanimous

A specific brain region lights up when you're empathetic and do good for others.

Posted Aug 18, 2016

Source: VLADGRIN/Shutterstock

It’s easy to feel discouraged about the state of our collective conscience when you read the morning headlines or watch the evening news. Again and again, public figures in the spotlight reaffirm that the most prevalent modus operandi in our dog-eat-dog society seems to be: "every man for himself."  

For example, the unscrupulous rhetoric of the political arena was eclipsed this week by 2016 Olympic sports’ heroes who appear to have twisted the truth and maligned others in an attempt to preserve their public image.

According to BBC news, four U.S. Olympic swimmers in Rio de Janeiro fabricated a robbery story to cover up a dispute over a vandalized bathroom at a gas station ten miles from the Olympic Village. As Walter Scott once said, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave. When first we practice to deceive!”

It’s a shame that this type of Machiavellian behavior is tarnishing the reputation of the U.S. Swim Team. Especially, after Michael Phelps displayed such grace and humility by completing his heroic journey by winning 23 gold medals over the course of five Olympic Games with a perfect blend of vulnerability and magnanimity.

Your Brain Can Shift From Machiavellian to Magnanimous

Luckily, a neuroscientific study published this week offers a glimmer of hope that Machiavellian and self-serving behavior isn't set in stone for any of us on a neurobiological level. The latest science shows that people can learn how to be more generous, magnanimous, and filled with goodwill by activating a specific brain region.

The August 2016 study, “Neurocomputational Mechanisms of Prosocial Learning and Links to Empathy,” appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

The neuroscientists from Oxford University and University College London (UCL) who conducted this research were able to pinpoint a specific part of our brain that helps us learn how to be more generous to others and less self-serving.

This discovery could lead to more effective interventions for people who display clinical degrees of antisocial behavior and psychopathology. The team of researchers was led by Patricia Lockwood. In a statement, she explained,

"Prosocial behaviors are social behaviors that benefit other people. They are a fundamental aspect of human interactions, essential for social bonding and cohesion, but very little is currently known about how and why people do things to help others. Although people have a remarkable inclination to engage in prosocial behaviors there are substantial differences between individuals.“

Until recently, the exact neural mechanisms that underpin prosocial and empathic behaviors have been poorly understood. In this groundbreaking study, the UK researchers used a combination of neuroimaging and computational modeling to show how magnanimous behaviors are learned via the reinforcement of brain activity in the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC).

Geoff B. Hall/Public Domain
Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) in yellow
Source: Geoff B. Hall/Public Domain

The researchers used a common model for deconstructing how people learn to maximize better outcomes for themselves. Then, they applied this model to deconstruct how people learn to not always only look out for themselves, but rather help others, too.

While being scanned in an fMRI neuroimaging machine, volunteers had to figure out which symbols were more likely to garner them, or someone else, a reward. The neuroscientists found that while most people eventually learn how to make choices that benefit other people—they don’t learn how to do so nearly as quickly as they learn to make choices that benefit themselves.

Based on these neuroscience findings, a lack of brain activity in the sgACC could partly explain the knee-jerk reaction of the four U.S. Olympic swimmers in Rio to fabricate their robbery story. Apparently, when the sgACC is activated, the researchers identified that people tend to strive for the best outcome for all parties involved, not just themselves. In a statement, Lockwood clarified:

“However, this region of the brain was not equally active in every person. People who rated themselves as having higher levels of empathy learnt to benefit others faster than those who reported having lower levels of empathy. They also showed increased signalling in their subgenual anterior cingulate cortex when benefitting others."

Conclusion: Activating the sgACC Could Create an Upward Spiral of Altruism and Kindheartedness

The latest neuroscience shows that the same brain area that drives prosocial learning in humans is directly linked to empathic accuracy and prosocial behaviors. This new framework could help to explain how a reduced level of empathy and prosocial behavior motivates many people we see in the news (and in our daily lives) behaving in ways that seem completely self-serving. In a statement, Lockwood concluded,

“This is the first time anyone has shown a particular brain process for learning prosocial behaviors—and a possible link from empathy to learning to help others . . . By understanding what the brain does when we do things for other people, and individual differences in this ability, we are better placed to understand what is going wrong in those whose psychological conditions are characterized by antisocial disregard for others.”

Hopefully, Ryan Lochte will emulate his teammate Michael Phelps' ability to metamorphosize himself after hitting rock bottom (in a very public 2014 alcohol-fueled DUI scandal) into a prosocial role model, and public figure, we can all admire. The good news is, the latest neuroscience shows that it's possible to go from being Machiavellian to magnanimous and doing good for others by engaging the sgACC.

To read more on this topic, check out my previous Psychology Today blog posts, 

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