In Friday’s Oregonian:

Using brain-scanning technology, University of Oregon researchers have found an unlikely force at play in the minds of people paying taxes: Pleasure.

In their experiment, taxing people for a charitable cause activated the brain’s reward centers — the same areas that respond to such sources of delight as food and sex.

“Paying taxes can make people feel good,” said William Harbaugh, UO economist and co-author of the study. Previous research had established that voluntary giving stirs activity in the brain regions that process feelings of reward. The UO study, published today in the journal Science, is the first to show that involuntary payments can evoke the same reaction.

Well, this is certainly breakthrough research.  I wonder how they discovered this phenomenon.

In the study, researchers gave $100 to each of 19 female volunteers. The volunteers confronted choices about giving money to a local food bank or having money for the food bank taken from them involuntarily, like a tax. Researchers scanned their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging, a technology that can map surges in brain cell activity in specific parts of the brain.

The experiment helps explain the curious willingness of people to pay taxes, which has long puzzled economists.

In other words, a grand total of nineteen (19!) females got turned on by the prospect of having money they did not earn forcibly taken from them.  Sounds a little kinky to me.  But I’m not sure it explains the “curious willingness” of people to pay taxes.  If compliance under threat of imprisonment–and as a result of one’s income being automatically withheld rather than merely requested–can be characterized as “willingness,” I’m not sure where the mystery lies.  But let’s say it is a mystery.  I hardly think nineteen dames with nothing better to do than live in Eugene and volunteer for neurological experiments constitute a representative sample of the human population.  But can anyone honestly say it’s surprising that people felt good upon learning that a food bank was getting money?  Obviously, if you were to monitor their pleasure receptors while watching money going to, say, interstate highways, that would be introducing too many variables into the equation.  Even among nineteen female Oregonians, you’re going to have some conflicting philosophies.  Maybe some of them are cyclists.  Perhaps others are concerned that the money would be spent on actually fixing the roads instead of picking up litter and recycling it.  So that’s not a tenable research experiment.  But given that most tax revenues are spent on causes significantly less sexy–but no less essential to society–than feeding the hungry, can this experiment really be applied to the general subject of tax compliance? 

Also, I’m no scientist, but it would seem to me that if you wanted to measure what really goes on in people’s brains when they “pay taxes,” you would have to give them MRI’s while confiscating their own actual money, as opposed to the theoretical stuff.  But lying still for an MRI is difficult and time-consuming.  I imagine most working people aren’t motivated to fit it into their schedules.

But what the researchers were really trying to study was not tax-paying, but altruism.

The findings also could help resolve a long-standing debate about the motives behind altruistic behavior. One side asserts that the satisfaction gained from contributing to the overall public good drives people to give money, a motive known as “pure altruism.”

The competing view, known as “warm glow” altruism, holds that people give mostly for the ego-stroking feeling that their personal act of charity made someone else feel better. …

The experiment showed that both forces play a role in altruistic behavior. Subjects had no choice in the taxlike transfers of money to the charity, but they still experienced reward-related brain activity. That showed pure altruism at work, rather than warm glow altruism, since the subjects had no choice in the matter.

See, again, this might just be me, but it seems that if you have no choice in the matter and hungry children are eating, why not feel good about it?  Especially since it was free money to begin with.

Based on how strongly the subjects’ brains responded to receiving money or giving it to the food bank, the researchers found that they could predict how likely individuals were to donate. Those with higher brain activation when money went to the charity rather than to themselves were about twice as likely to give money voluntarily.

This is another Duh Moment.  If you’re heartless enough to begrudge hungry people food when it’s not even your money that they’re taking, it sort of follows that you aren’t going to willingly donate more money of your own accord.  But what do I know?  I was an English major.

Bottom line:  If you have to read something this week, don’t bother with Science.  Pick up this book instead.

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