Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

New Study: Paying Taxes Brings Pleasure

Interesting article in today's New York Times:  Taxes a Pleasure? Check the Brain Scan, by John Tierney:

The University of Oregon announced a new piece of research last week with a startling headline: “Paying taxes, according to the brain, can bring satisfaction.” Could this be true? The research is in the new issue of Science, so it’s got the right pedigree, but still. How could politicians have gotten it so wrong? Even the most liberal Democratic candidates never imagined a lot of voters whistling as they merrily write out checks to the IRS. ...

Some economists have attributed altruism to the “warm glow” effect — the pleasurable feeling of playing Lady Bountiful and basking in public admiration. They’ve argued that there is no such thing as “pure altruism.” But now the pure variety has been spotted in the brains of students, at least according to the new paper by a psychologist, Ulrich Mayr, and two economists, William T. Harbaugh and Daniel R. Burghart, all at the University of Oregon.

Their experiment was drawn up to remove some of the usual incentives for being charitable like the fear of looking stingy or the prestige of being named in the program of a charity dinner. Each student was given $100 and told that nobody would know how much of it she chose to keep or give away, not even the researchers who enlisted her in the experiment and scanned her brain. ... .

The brain responses were measured by a functional MRI machine as a series of transactions occurred. Sometimes the student had to choose whether to donate some of her cash to a local food bank. Sometimes a tax was levied that sent her money to the food bank without her approval. Sometimes she received extra money, and sometimes the food bank received money without any of it coming from her. Sure enough, when the typical student chose to donate to the food bank, she was rewarded with that warm glow: increased activity in the same ancient areas of the brain — the caudate, nucleus accumbens and insula — that respond when you eat a sweet dessert or receive money. But these pleasure centers were also activated, albeit not as much, when she was forced to pay a tax to the food bank. This doesn’t mean that the student, or anyone else, would necessarily enjoy writing a check to the IRS that would be spent on plenty of programs less appealing than a food bank. It is more like the tax collected by a state lottery that dedicates its profits to schools.

The paper is Neural Responses to Taxation and Voluntary Giving Reveal Motives for Charitable Donations, 316 Science 1622 (6/15/07).  Here is the abstract:

Civil societies function because people pay taxes and make charitable contributions to provide public goods. One possible motive for charitable contributions, called "pure altruism," is satisfied by increases in the public good no matter the source or intent. Another possible motive, "warm glow," is only fulfilled by an individual's own voluntary donations. Consistent with pure altruism, we find that even mandatory, tax-like transfers to a charity elicit neural activity in areas linked to reward processing. Moreover, neural responses to the charity's financial gains predict voluntary giving. However, consistent with warm glow, neural activity further increases when people make transfers voluntarily. Both pure altruism and warm-glow motives appear to determine the hedonic consequences of financial transfers to the public good.

(Hat Tip:  Gerry Beyer & Bryan Camp.)


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Oh brother. You've got to be kidding me. They must have misinterpreted the brain scan. Pleasure was actually pain.

This story lacks any credibility.

Posted by: Mike | Jun 19, 2007 11:58:53 AM

"Paying Taxes Brings Pleasure"


If this wasn't such a pathetic attempt at obvious propaganda, it truly would be funny. Stupid people!

Posted by: James | Jun 19, 2007 11:23:31 AM

Did anyone ask the question "How do you feel when someone gives you $100.00 for doing absolutely nothing for it?" I know I'd feel pretty darn good and those feelings would last at least a couple of days. Abstract; I have yet to meet someone who was bliss with a "warm glow" after signing away hard earned income to paying any kind of tax, sales, state, federal,etc... More fuel for the propaganda machine or just indoctrination?

Posted by: Free | Jun 19, 2007 10:08:46 AM

Oh yes! So much pleasure! I hope they'll tax me even more and then I'll get happier and happier. Hey, why not just take everything and then allocate me whatever you think I need to survive! 95% of my budget can go to the military, 1% to the state government, 1% to the feds and then 3% to take care of my needs! It's almost orgasmic it's so enjoyable!

Posted by: John | Jun 19, 2007 10:05:52 AM

oh really ???? this is a bunch on horse hockey in the age of big govt and censorship and NSA monitoring, people are not grateful for kind of return they are getting on their tax payments !!

Posted by: river bank | Jun 19, 2007 9:47:31 AM

Are you out of your frigging mind?
NO ONE enjoys being extorted!

Posted by: Joe | Jun 19, 2007 9:30:19 AM

What a load of crap! The only reason I pay my federal income taxes is the same reason that a bar owner pays protection money to the mob. If I don't, I'll get all of my assets stolen and find my ass in prison.

There is ample evidence out there that the 16th amendment to the Constitution was never legally ratified. Therefore, federal income tax on regular income is unconstitutional on it's face.

It's an extortion racket to give our corrupt, ever borrowing federal government the appearence of solvency. Those Americans who get pleasure from capitulating to this illegal activity are simply ignorant of the facts.

Posted by: brisa | Jun 19, 2007 9:01:47 AM

Is this a sick joke? Ed Brown is about to be killed for the pleasure of not paying taxes. Illegal taxes paid for by illegal paper money, yet more infringements on our rights by the gov't. Add it to the ever-growing list of violations:
They violate the 1st Amendment by opening mail, caging demonstrators and banning books like "America Deceived" from Amazon.
They violate the 2nd Amendment by confiscating guns during Katrina.
They violate the 4th Amendment by conducting warrant-less wiretaps.
They violate the 5th and 6th Amendment by suspending habeas corpus.
They violate the 8th Amendment by torturing.
They violate the entire Constitution by starting 2 illegal wars based on lies and on behalf of a foriegn gov't.
Support indy media.
Last link (unless Google Books caves to the gov't and drops the title):

Posted by: Norman | Jun 19, 2007 8:41:10 AM

This is absurd! Taxation without representation is tyranny, and the federal income tax is unconstitutional and without legal basis. Those who willingly fund the government's illegal activities are no better than slaves. I will not willingly pay to kill people around the world and distroy our own civil liberties at home!

Posted by: Justin in Eugene | Jun 19, 2007 8:35:16 AM

I wonder if this study was paid for with public money?

Posted by: Jim Depkin | Jun 19, 2007 8:32:08 AM

"Each student was given $100...."

I wonder what the results would have been if the students worked for the money, instead of being gifted it.

Posted by: Mike | Jun 19, 2007 8:23:09 AM