There is no “future” for selfish people

By analyzing their cerebral activity, UNIGE researchers have discovered that selfish people do not project themselves into a future deemed too distant to concern them with.

Some people are concerned about the future consequences of climate change and others do not consider, deeming  it too distant to have an impact on their well-being. Researchers at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) have wondered how these differences of concern translate into the brain. Through neuroimaging, they have observed that people who are considered “selfish” do not use the area of ​​the brain that allows them to look into the distant future and imagine what it will be like, unlike altruistic people, in whom this area experiences great activity.

These results, which can be read in the journal Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, may allow psychologists to come up with exercises that work this specific area of ​​the brain, to train the ability to project people and raise awareness, for example, for the consequences of climate change.

The concerns of the human being are built by its values. They are the ones who determine whether the person favors his or her personal well-being or puts him- or herself on an equal footing with peers. Therefore, to encourage as many people to adopt a “sustainable” behavior, they must be concerned about the consequences of climate change. In fact, some people who are self-centered do not worry about it, judging these possible disasters too far away.

“We then asked ourselves what magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can teach us about how the brain deals with information about the consequences of climate change in the future, and how this mechanism differs depending on whether centered or not,” says Tobias Brosch, professor at the Psychology Section of the UNIGE Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences (FPSE).

To arrive to this conclusion, UNIGE psychologists have identified in the report “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)” the predictions of the consequences of climate change, such as the reduction of drinking water supplies, the increase in conflicts at the borders of countries or the increase in natural disasters. They then attributed a date more or less distant to each of these consequences, announcing when it will occur.

Tobias Brosch’s team then had a standardized questionnaire completed to measure value hierarchies to a panel of participants, marking selfish or altruistic tendencies of each. These took place one by one in the MRI, then were confronted with the dated consequences and had to answer two questions on a scale of 1 to 8: Is it serious? Are you afraid ?

“The first result we have obtained is that for people with a selfish tendency, the near future is much more worrying than the distant future that will take place after their death, whereas in the altruistic people, this difference disappears, the gravity being perceived as identical,” says Tobias Brosch.

Psychologists then focused on the activity of the prefrontal ventromedial cortex (VMPFC), an area of ​​the brain above the eyes that is used when the subject projects into the future and attempts to visualize it. “We have found that in altruistic people, this brain zone is activated more strongly when the subject is confronted with consequences of a distant future compared to the near future, whereas in a selfish person, there is no increase of activity between a consequence in the near future and another in the distant future “, enthuses Tobias Brosch.

Indeed, this region is mainly used to project into the distant future. The absence of increased activity in a self-centered person indicates the absence of projection and the fact that the person does not feel concerned by what will happen after his or her death. Therefore, why adopt a sustainable behavior?

Applicable to fields other than climate change, these results demonstrate the importance of being able to project into the distant future in order to adapt one’s behavior to the realities of the world. “We could imagine a psychological training that would work this brain area with projection exercises,” offers Tobias Brosch. “Thanks to the virtual reality, which would make visible to everyone the world of tomorrow, we would bring closer the human being to the consequences of his actions.”

Carl Frantz

Polyglot, humanitarian, Carl was born in Germany but raised in the USA. He writes mostly on tech, science and culture.