Buddhists make rational economic decisions

By | May 31, 2011

A recent study into human decision-making revealed that experienced Buddhist meditators act more rationally in social situations that are commonly experienced as unfair.
The study, carried out by researchers in the US and Canada, compared the decisions of experienced Buddhist meditators with that of control participants during the so-called Ultimatum Game. In a (simulated) two-person exchange the participants were offered a split of a certain amount of money ($20). If they decided to reject the offer, proposer and respondent got nothing; otherwise both received their respective share. Typically, participants tend to reject offers that are perceived as particularly unfair, i.e. when they would receive 20% or less. However, a more rational choice would be to accept every non-zero offer, as it would improve ones economic situation. The results showed that the Buddhist meditators accepted significantly more of the unfair offers ($2 / $18 and $1 / $19) than the control participants.
Interestingly, the concurrently registered brain activity showed striking differences between the two groups while they were making their decisions. Meditators engaged different networks of brain areas, indicative of an ability to uncouple emotional reactions from their behaviour. Activity in the anterior insula, a brain area heavily involved in emotional processing, was reduced, while brain activity in the posterior insula, related to an awareness of low-level bodily sensations, was increased. Thus, the reliance on bodily sensations, uncoupled from emotional evaluations, may help in making more rational choices.
While on the surface these results seem to suggest that the meditators did not care so much about fairness, the outcome may indeed reflect something more fundamental: Usually we evaluate our own situation, rewards, wealth or income, in relation to that of our environment. For our feeling of happiness and satisfaction, it is indeed not so important how much we have or receive, but how we fare in comparison to others. Thus, a millionaire may still feel dissatisfied when surrounded by billionaires. Even a reasonably good car may feel shabby compared to the new BMW of our neighbour. Considering this, the study suggests that meditation can take some of this emotional irrationality out of our evaluations and helps us to see gains and benefits as what they really are. Buddhists may thus be closer to the rational economic agent, homo economicus.
In more general terms, this study is one of the first to consider the influence of (buddhist) meditation practice on decision making and our actions in situations close to real life.

The study was published in Frontiers in Neuroscience in April 2011: doi:10.3389/fnins.2011.00049

© 2011, Peter Malinowski. All rights reserved. You may republish this post in unaltered form – On republishing it you must provide the link to this original post.

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