Helping or punishing strangers: neural correlates of altruistic decisions as third-party and of its relation to empathic concern

Front Behav Neurosci. 2015 Feb 18;9:24. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2015.00024. eCollection 2015.


Social norms are a cornerstone of human society. When social norms are violated (e.g., fairness) people can either help the victim or punish the violator in order to restore justice. Recent research has shown that empathic concern influences this decision to help or punish. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) we investigated the neural underpinnings of third-party help and punishment and the involvement of empathic concern. Participants saw a person violating a social norm, i.e., proposing unfair offers in a dictator game, at the expense of another person. The participants could then decide to either punish the violator or help the victim. Our results revealed that both third-party helping as well as third-party punishing activated the bilateral striatum, a region strongly related with reward processing, indicating that both altruistic decisions share a common neuronal basis. In addition, also different networks were involved in the two processes compared with control conditions; bilateral striatum and the right lateral prefrontal cortex (lPFC) during helping and bilateral striatum as well as left lPFC and ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) during punishment. Further we found that individual differences in empathic concern influenced whether people prefer to help or to punish. People with high empathic concern helped more frequently, were faster in their decision and showed higher activation in frontoparietal regions during helping compared with punishing. Our findings provide insights into the neuronal basis of human altruistic behavior and social norm enforcement mechanism.

Keywords: empathic concern; reward; striatum; third-party help; third-party punishment.