Nuclear Waste, Altruism, Pleasure, and the Brain

In Switzerland, the government wanted to use nuclear plants to power the country, but they needed a place to dump all the waste. A study was done in the little town which was being considered. When asked, 50.8% of the people agreed to put themselves at risk for the common good of the nation. To see if they could shrink the number of those against the proposal, they offered $2,175 per person per year to the townspeople. Surprisingly, this had the opposite affect. This time only 24.6% agreed. When the deal was sweetened to $6,525 per person per year, only one person changed his answer. What??? This doesn’t make sense.

Will you do this for free? Sure. We can do that.

How ’bout if I give you lots of cash? No, I don’t think so. Would more $ help persuade you? Nope.

So what happened?

Ultimately, it goes back to the brain. (There is physiological evidence for what I’m about to say. Check Chapter 7 of Sway” by Ori and Rom Brafman) When only the altruistic part of the brain was stimulated, people were agreeable. But when $$ is offered, the pleasure part of the brain is also stimulated. Because of it’s power and the amount it is exercised, (how often we use it) it takes more to stimulate the pleasure center of the brain. It needs more powerful drugs to make it excited than the altruistic part.

In the experiment, somehow $6,525 didn’t seem like enough compensation to truly stimulate the pleasure part of the brain, but the altruistic part was satisfied with doing it for the common good of the people. Although normal reasoning might lead one to offer financial incentives as motivation, it appears that this might not always be the best option. One might be better off evaluating the offer for how much it might stimulate the pleasure center as opposed to the altruistic part of our brains to make a better decision about whether to offer the incentive or not.

I’m not sure if this says more about our physiology (the way God made our brains) or about the parts of the brain that we choose to exercise. If she had been tested, would Mother Theresa’s “pleasure center” beat her “altruism center?” Could the “altruism center” be exercised enough to outperform the “pleasure center?”

2 thoughts on “Nuclear Waste, Altruism, Pleasure, and the Brain

  1. Chris Shelby

    Would this apply to religion as well. I mean, should we be selling people on receiving Christ into their lives for some moral good that benefits our community rather than personal salvation?

    I’m ok with this if the study says it will work. Wonder if any church plant has tried this approach. Paul says, “I have become all things, to all men, so that by all possible means i might save someone”.

    The only downside to this is that the personal relationship might be lost some. Anyways. Just my rant.

    1. Steve Corn Post author

      Good thoughts Chris. I think you’re right. When we seek to evangelize with selfish motivations, it’s not even Christianity anymore, but humanism motivated by our pleasure centers. On the other hand – just ’cause we had wrong motives doesn’t mean God can’t use it to bring someone into authentic personal salvation. I guess I might say that God can work in spite of our motives.
      Since true evangelism is motivated by the Spirit, I’m wondering how he is connected to the altruism center?
      To add another level of thought: John Piper would say that true pleasure is also only found in God.

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