In high school we put on a Sigmund Romberg operetta which included a cynical little ditty about Being Good: “Always do what people say you should. You never can be happy, child, unless you’re good. I did what I was told. I was as good as gold. And I know I shall be happy, cuz I am so good.” If sung sarcastically enough, it always brought the house down.

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I recommend Romberg to modern fMRI researchers on altruism. The most frequently cited study involves 19 graduate students [in good health], who voluntarily participated in a study in which a radio-active isotope was “introduced” into their bloodstream. They were given a starting “float” of $128 each, which they could opt to keep or to donate [some of] “anonymously” to various charitable causes. The headline finding of the study was that [gasp!] the same part of the brain lit up when a participant gave away money, as when they received it. I call “Sampling Error!” I would like to see this result replicated, using 19 [or 190] randomly selected people, from all walks of life, including, oh, for instance, the have-nots. I put it to you, that these volunteers were no more “a cross-section of humanity,” than the folks who answer the phones for a PBS pledge drive. It takes a certain level of altruism to agree to go radio-active, not to diagnose or treat a serious health problem of one’s own, but simply to “further theoretical knowledge about in-born altruism.” Don’t you think?

More to the point, these volunteers were all 20-Somethings, already “in the zone” for having an up-and-running Pre-frontal cortex, as well as millions of stored memories associating Being Good with Getting a Reward. Why does Lili shut open doors? Out of save-the-earth’s-resources Green-ness? To make herself feel like a [very specialized] service dog? I believe she does it because I took the time [10 minutes] to lay down neural pathways in her brain between the command “Shimaru,” her shutting the door, the praise word “Yoshi!” (Good job!), and a small ort of dried lamb lung. Now, she need only be intermittently reinforced with the morsel of food [or even just with praise] to keep the behavior in her repertoire. Mostly, we mark and reinforce all kinds of pro-social behavior, simply by telling her “Yoshi!” And, folks, she’s just a dog, not a graduate student.

I’m saying, I think the 19 so-frequently-cited subjects [just listen for it, next pledge week] were all sub-vocalizing their personalized version of Romberg’s “So Good” song, right up there in their cerebral cortex; and the reason their Reward Center lit up when they were Being Good was because of a conditioned response. Yikes! That makes me sound like a Behaviorist! [Which I’m not. Well, only on the weekends.]

This stuff matters, because the ugly step-sister of fMRI research on Being Good is research on what used to be called psychopaths, suggesting that there are neuro-anatomical [perhaps even genetic] differences in their brains, that predispose them to anti-social behavior. This is chillingly reminiscent of eugenics, if you ask me; and much of it is based on the same methodologically flawed research design as the 19 Altruists study.

I believe that experience is at least as important a determinant of behavior as DNA. If it isn’t, why even bother to lay down neural pathways rewarding Good Deeds? Why ever say “Yoshi”?

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Filed under murky research, pro bono publico

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