Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Taxation without Vexation

A new study published in Science suggests that paying your taxes might actually make you feel good. Researchers gave students at the University of Oregon $100, then recorded their brain activity when they were given the chance to make anonymous donations to a food bank with some of that money. When they made their donations, the areas of their brains that lit up were the same as those associated with pleasure and reward. That finding is consistent with similar research, such as that conducted by James Rilling of Emory University, suggesting a link between altruism and positive emotions.

But the researchers here also sometimes levied a tax on the money they'd given out, telling their participants the taxed money would also go to the food bank (which it did). They found that the brain activity was the same, though not as strong, as when people gave money on their own accord.

Reporting on this finding in today's The New York Times, John Tierney writes that the results "bolster the case for 'pure altruism'"--as opposed to altruistic acts performed for selfish motives--"because the student paying the tax could not take personal credit for deciding to feed the hungry." In other words, even though they received nothing in return for their money--not even recognition for their generosity or the personal satisfaction of knowing they'd tried to do something nice for others--the participants still felt good.

Tierney quotes Ulrich Mayr, one of the study's authors, as saying, "The most surprising result is that these basic pleasure centers in the brain don’t respond only to what’s good for yourself. ... They also seem to be tracking what’s good for other people, and this occurs even when the subjects don’t have a say in what happens.”


Jenny said...

Hmm. Its still a leap to believe that people feel good paying taxes. It depends on what people really believe their taxes are being used for. If citizens really believed that their taxes ultimately go to pay for good things, then perhaps I can buy that leap. But, just listen to the daily chatter around tax time and you more often hear comments like the government wasting our money, bla bla bla. In that sense, paying taxes feels more like being forced to throw money away, not being forced to contribute to the greater good.

However, these findings do suggest that if the government made more visible exactly where tax money goes and what impact those programs/projects have on the "greater good" in a way that people actually buy into its ultimate worthiness, then perhaps there would be all sorts of great brain activity come April.

dillon_squash said...

It's not really a leap to believe this, think about what you think about. You think about why you are paying your hard earned money. You realize that it is being paid out to support an entire nation, one that you belong to, one that you are a part of and proudly so. It reinforces your sense of belonging, your sense of responsibility and purpose as a citizen. I think this makes perfect sense. When I pay my taxes to the United States, I feel as though I am contributing to the greater good for myself and my fellow three hundred million plus citizens.

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