“It’s Mine!”

Ever wonder why you cling to your “stuff” so tightly? The “endowment effect” states that we all tend to prefer the items we own when compared to similar items that we do not own.  “It’s mine!” is our strongly voiced opinion from the very first days that we can speak.

When researchers studied the brains of volunteers through fMRI they found that three different brain areas were activated during those times when we are prompted to declare ownership.  Initial results indicate that the endowment effect is not promoted by our enhanced attraction to possessions but rather that ownership increases value by enhancing the significance of the possible loss of preferred products.  Losing something that we like is more significant than the actual ownership of the item.

It is also threatening – and we tend to be motivated more by aversion to loss than attraction to gain.  And as we’ve said in the past, threat is a powerful emotion that gets our attention quickly.  The element of surprise only intensifies the effect.  Try and grab a favorite teddy bear from a three-year-old and watch how quickly “It’s mine!” kicks in.

Aversion to loss lies at the heart of the strength of our attachments to things.  When there is little risk of losing something it’s often surprising how little value we find that we actually attach to it.

Links:  ScienceDaily   The Brain and Surprise


What is most Fair?

Things feel fair or unfair. Our emotions play a central role in our perceptions of fairness and how we respond to injustice. fMRI imaging studies of individuals making decisions involving fairness indicate that emotions help determine a person’s attitude towards inequity through involvement of the insula.

The question in a University of Illinois and California Institute of Technology study, “Which is better, giving more food to a few hungry people or letting some food go to waste so that everyone gets a share” finds that most people choose the latter. As a social species, we as individuals are fairly intolerant of inequality.

“One could choose to take 15 meals from a single child, for example, or 13 meals from one child and five from another. In the first option the total number of meals lost would be lower. Efficiency would be preserved, but one child would bear the brunt of all the cuts. In the second option more children would share the burden of lost meals but more meals would be lost. The equity was better — but at a cost to efficiency.” We will see that everyone has a fair share even if it means that the overall resources available to us take a greater hit.

Of note, the decisions were made by individuals who were themselves well-fed and not in danger of starving. When things are going well we tend to favor equity for all. In times of scarcity, danger or other threat, self-preservation instincts tend to override this behavior. In other words, it would seem that we would maintain this pattern of sharing because it feels right until the resources actually started running out.

In a world of growing scarcity and competition for resources this becomes increasingly relevant.

Link: ScienceDaily, Coaching Fairness, Fairness and Feeling Good

The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love

An interesting link on the nature, expression and fostering of altruism and related is www.unlimitedloveinstitute.org. Per its mission statement –

The unique mission of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love is:

(1) to study the benefits of benevolent love for those who give it and for those who receive it
(2) to bring the results of research to the wider public in understandable and practical format
(3) to sustain an international dialogue around the possibility of global human enhancement through the application of a new science of love
(4) to encourage discussion within spiritual traditions about love for a shared humanity, rather than for some small fragment of humanity
(5) to develop an ongoing dialogue between spirituality, theology, and science around the idea of unlimited love as the ultimate ground of reality

It minimally provides a complementary venue to the more traditional philosophical, theological and scientific approaches without apparently marginalizing any of them.

See also:  The Influence of Others, Empathy and Learning to do Good, Practice Giving for your Health and Peace of Mind, Paying Taxes Makes me Feel Good?

Coaching Fairness

Fairness is a feeling.  Something feels fair or unfair at a fundamental level.  It’s only later that we tend to think it through.  That is somewhat the gist of yesterday’s post.

In coaching we have to remember that in dealing with issues around fairness we are dealing with emotional rather than purely cognitive responses.  We are dealing with feelings – and in dealing with feelings the first thing we have to do is defuse the emotion.  This is not the same thing as taking it away.  Rather, it is the coach’s task to help an individual manage the emotion.  This can include deep breathing exercises, quiet meditation and in particular, the use of reframing to lead an individual from a purely emotional response to a more considered cognitive response through use of the ladder of inference.

Remembering that issues of fairness are emotional rather than cognitive in nature will help both coach and client move more swiftly to a resolution.

Fairness and Feeling Good

If I am treated fairly I tend to feel good.  It’s a proportional situation rather than something so hard and fast as a particular amount.  Given the situation in which I find myself, fairness is relevant to the total.  Less in an environment of scarcity can feel as good as more does in a situation of plenty.

UCLA psychologists Golnaz Tabibnia, and colleagues Ajay Satpute and Matthew Lieberman find that separate brain regions become active depending upon whether one perceives that he or she is being treated fairly.  Unfair treatment activates the anterior insula, a region associated with the processing of negative emotions.  Treatment that is perceived as fair activates the ventral striatum, an area associated with reward.

Both areas are part of the quickly reacting emotional complexes within the brain and swiftly overrule the more deliberate, conscious utilitarianism that would evaluate the usefulness of the reward rather than its proportion of fairness.  This tends to give us a default position in which our emotional fairness response is our first response – and our unthinking and reactive response until we have time to more cognitively assess the situation.

In other words, it is an underlying process which can demand reframing of mental models, acceptance, rationalization, or any of the other more rational mental activities that we engae in.  But that being said, it is a core response, a part of TED that demands reconciliation if unfair.  The suggestion is that we are indeed hardwired for fairness.

Links:  Hardwired for Fairness

The Influence of others, Empathy and Learning to do Good

Practice Giving for your Health and Peace of Mind

Paying Taxes makes me Feel Good?

Attention is Biased Towards Emotion

I will Decide . . . at some Point in Time

The debate around free will ebbs and flows with each new study.  We certainly like to think that we have the ability to freely make and follow the decisions that we make.  Most of the time anyway.  We also seem to like blaming anything or anybody other than oursleves when situations start “heading south” as the old saying goes.

When do we make decisions?  At what point do we become aware that we’ve made a decision?  And at the point at which we realize that we’ve made a decision, have we perhaps made it earlier than we realize.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, have demonstrated that portions of the brain iinvolved in our decision-making processes are activated up to seven seconds before we are consciously aware that we have made a decision.

As they are quick to point out – “Our study shows that decisions are unconsciously prepared much longer ahead than previously thought.   But we do not know yet where the final decision is made.  We need to investigate whether a decision prepared by these brain areas can still be reversed.”

So the jury remains out for the moment, at least in terms of this study.  When do I decide? At some point in time.

Link:  Decision-making may be Surprisingly Unconscious Activity

The Influence of Others, Empathy and Learning to Do Good

Why do we behave? Janneke Joly, Ph.D., the University of Groningen, suggests that we are prompted by others to do so and that we do it under three distinct influences – other people’s physical presence, the association of a particular person with a normative behavior, or having their memory on our minds.  In other words, my mother standing next to me, the association of her with cleaning my plate of all its food, or the memory of her telling me to clean my plate will all have the effect of influencing me to finish my meal.

Now, if the norm happens to be that altruism or doing good is a proper thing to do, then each of the three influences above will tend to direct me to do good.  But why I do good could be motivated by a variety of things.  Recent research by psychologist Lidewij Niezink, also of the University of Groningen, suggests that we help friends due to our empathy with them whereas we tend to help relatives because we expect help back in return.  This has a certain logic.  As the old cliche goes, you can’t choose your relatives.  We may or may not have a lot in common with siblings or parents whereas we will tend to have more in common with the friends that we choose – hence an easier time empathizing with them.

Finally, we are hardly off the hook if we state that we just don’t have a lot of empathy for people, period.  Maybe so.  But researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison state that kindness and compassion can be learned.  Functional MRI studies indicate that “brain circuits used to detect emotions and feelings were dramatically changed in subjects who had extensive experience practicing compassion meditation.”  Activity increased in the insula, a portion of the brain where bodily representations of emotion tend to be processed, and the temporal parietal juncture, which processes empathy.  The net result was that individuals who practiced “compassion meditation,” the art of generating kind and compassionate thoughts towards others, thought and acted more compassionately.

So in summary, thoughts of my mother telling me to be kind to my crazy Aunt Meg will influence me to do so, even though I don’t want to.  I may expect that Aunt Meg will be nice to me in return, even though she and I have little in common.  Nevertheless, under my mother’s influence I decide to do so and after a few minutes of quiet thoughts of good will towards her I surprisingly find it easier to do so.  Anybody relate?