A team of scientists from both the University College of London and Oxford University recently published an eye-opening experiment in?Current Biology.?
The team found that psychotropic drugs, such as the SSRI citalopram and the dopamine-enhancer levodopa, are wildly influential in the decision-making and moral judgement of healthy individuals, providing insight into the neurological and chemical roots of common psychological disorders, and raising concerns about the therapeutic usage of such psychotropic drugs.
The scientists found healthy subjects who were given citalopram, a serotonin-boosting psychotropic branded as Celexa, were far more altruistic than those given a placebo, which made them willing to give up more to prevent harm against themselves and others. Those given the dopamine-enhancing levodopa, on the other hand, were more selfish in their decision-making.
The experiment involved how much pain the subjects were willing to anonymously inflict upon themselves and upon others in exchange for money. 175 subjects were used in the study. Of these, 89 of the subjects were given citalopram or a placebo, while the remaining 86 were given levodopa or a placebo. They were then randomly paired, one acting as a decision-maker and the other a receiver.
Each subject was given an electric shock at their pain threshold. The decision-makers were then presented with a choice: a different amount of money for a different amount of shocks, either for themselves or the receiver.
What the scientists found was stunning.
The decision-makers who were given a placebo were willing to pay, on average, 35 pence to prevent harm to themselves and 44 pence to prevent harm to their receiver. This suggests the general altruistic nature humans have, even without influence of psychotropic drugs.
Decision-makers who were given citalopram were even more altruistic than those on the placebo. These decision-makers, on average, were willing to pay 60 pence to avoid harm befalling themselves and 73 pence to prevent harm to the receiver.
Those given levodopa, on the other hand, were far more self-oriented than those who were given the placebo. There was no difference in the amounts they would have paid to prevent shocks delivered to themselves or others. On average, those given levodopa were willing to pay 35 pence to prevent harm against themselves and against others.
They also hesitated less when tasked with shocking the receiver, compared to those given a placebo.
The scientist’s findings will impact future study and treatment options for those with antisocial personalities, helping them to better understand the neurological and chemical reasoning behind why people who exhibit antisocial behaviors (such as narcissism, hostility, and selfishness) lack social empathy and altruism.
The information from this study is also significant because the same team conducted a similar study in November that showed subjects were willing to spare a stranger from pain twice as often as they would spare themselves, even with a monetary incentive. This is a behavior known as “hyper-altruism.”
Given that the psychotropic drugs used in the study affected healthy individuals by influencing their moral decision-making, questions have been raised regarding the ethics of using psychotropic drugs in general. As psychotropic drugs alter the way the human brain operates, is it ethical to manipulate the human brain into a rigidly-defined sense of “normalcy?”
Given what we know about potential adverse health effects associated with psychotropic drugs (such as cardiac and metabolic afflictions), is it ethical to administer psychotropic drugs in the treatment of one condition while directly causing another?
Psychotropic drugs are some of the most commonly-prescribed pharmaceuticals not just in the United States, but in many other parts of the world as well. Is it possible that psychotropic drugs are being over-prescribed, similar to how we have over-prescribed antibiotics?
I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I know that for us to become a more altruistic society, we have to understand why and how altruism exists in some people more, or less, than others. Perhaps understanding why and how antisocial personalities develop will assist in the diminishing of criminal activities, and help us to adopt a socioeconomic system that doesn’t feed some while starving others.
To understand and embrace prosocial behaviors we must understand antisocial behaviors, and there may be no better place to start than the brain itself.