Money’s money regardless of how it makes its way to you, some might say. But according to new research, how you make your money could affect how much you enjoy it. It turns out, earning honest money is much more rewarding, just as your grandad told you.
“When we make decisions, a network of brain regions calculates how valuable our options are,” lead author Dr Molly Crockett explained in a statement. “Ill-gotten gains evoke weaker responses in this network, which may explain why most people would rather not profit from harming others. Our results suggest the money just isn’t as appealing.”
The study, by researchers from University College London, was recently published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. To find out how our morals affect our perception of profit on a neural level they used an fMRI brain scanner while volunteers played a game in which they could anonymously inflict an electric shock on themselves or a stranger and receive a monetary reward.
They paired up 28 sets of participants and allocated each person the role of “decider” or “receiver.” Deciders picked between different amounts of money for different numbers of electric shocks and whether to inflict pain on themselves or the other person. Regardless of the scenario, the decider always won the money and the receiver got nothing.
As they monitored the brain activity of the decider, the researchers noticed that a neural network known as the striatum lit up with activity. This area of the brain has previously been shown to be key in value judgments. When the decider weighed up between more money or fewer zaps, the levels of brain activity in the striatum signaled how beneficial they felt each option was. For those that behaved morally, the network responded less to money gained from shocking others, compared with money gained from shocking himself.
The lateral prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with moral judgments, also pulsed with activity in trials where inflicting pain yielded a minimal profit. This appears to suggest the person was assessing guilt and blame. So essentially, we are "hardwired" to register guilt when we're making decisions that we know might harm others, and so don't value the ill-gotten gains at the expense of others as much.
"Our findings suggest the brain internalizes the moral judgments of others, simulating how much others might blame us for potential wrongdoing, even when we know our actions are anonymous,” Dr Crockett explained.
“What we have shown here is how values that guide our decisions respond flexibly to moral consequences," senior author Professor Ray Dolan added. "An important goal for future research is understanding when and how this circuitry is disturbed in contexts such as antisocial behavior.”