A complex cocktail of early life experiences, religious beliefs, and political leanings, among many other factors, determines how compassionate a person is. Not only does compassion figure into how likely a person is to give spare change to a homeless person or donate to a charitable cause, but it can also affect how sensitive an individual is to inequality.
A study published in Current Biology suggests that compassion isn’t just a matter of choice or experience, however. In fact, researchers have found that a drug may boost compassion.
A Drug for Compassion?
Researchers theorized that compassionate people would be more sensitive to issues of fairness. A compassionate person might see unequal distribution of resources as the product of discrimination or unfair advantages. A person lacking in compassion, on the other hand, might attribute this inequality to other factors, such as innate differences. The authors of the study hypothesized that changes in brain chemistry might be all it takes to nurture compassion.
To test their theory, researchers gave 18 women and 17 men either a placebo or tolcapone, a drug that boosts dopamine in the prefrontal cortex. Dopamine is associated with motivation and reward, and previous research has pointed to the role of the prefrontal cortex in evaluating economic inequality. The study was a double-blind study, which means that neither researchers nor participants knew who received the placebo and who received tolcapone. This makes it more difficult for researchers to subtly bias results based on their knowledge.
The participants then played a game that required them to divide money between an unknown recipient and themselves. Those who took tolcapone divided the money in a more equitable way than those who took a placebo. This suggests that compassionate choices might not always be the product of personality or values, but could also be affected by brain chemistry. Mental health issues such as depression and attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) can affect dopamine levels, as can health issues, stress, and early experiences.
- Altering brain chemistry makes us more sensitive to inequality. (2015, March 23). Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/291223.php
- Siddiqui, I. (n.d.). Dopamine and addiction. Retrieved from http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/neuro/neuro05/web1/isiddiqui.html
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