Why Mothers Eat Burnt Toast: Neuroeconomics of Intergenerational Sacrifice

Abstract: 
This pilot will examine empathy as a motive for intergenerational inter-vivos transfers using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). We propose to study how empathy varies with kinship and whether empathy is related to one's willingness to make self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. Adapting an established protocol for measuring pain empathy responses in the human brain with fMRI (Singer et al. 2004, 2006) and using an adult son, his mom, and stranger's mom as the experimental setup, the study will examine: (1) How pain empathy varies with social distance, comparing neural activation in pain empathy areas of the son's brain when he himself receives various grades of electrical shocks to his hand, when his mom receives similar shocks, and when the stranger receives similar shocks; (2) How this neural activation correlates with self-reported pain ratings and empathy scale scores; (3) How the son's willingness to receive shocks to prevent shocks to his mom or the stranger relates to the "price schedule" of shock intensities for such self-sacrifice; (4) How the price schedule, neural activation for pain empathy, and pain ratings are related to each other and to kinship; (5) How neural activation and pain ratings differ when pain is received for no purpose versus for a "higher purpose"; and (6) How neural activation differs when one's choice caused other's pain.
Funded By: 
P30 Pilots
Award Dates: 
July 1, 2009 - June 30, 2011
PARC Grant Year: 
Year 16