Study: Female Brains More Sensitive to Prosocial Rewards Than Men

A new study from Swiss researchers finds that the female human brain reacts more strongly to prosocial behavior than the male brain.

Neuroscientists from the University of Zurich looked at the areas of the brain that are active when decisions of this kind are made. They are the first to demonstrate that the brains of men and women respond differently to prosocial and selfish behavior.

The striatum, located in the middle of the brain, is responsible for the assessment of reward and is active whenever a decision is made.

Researchers found that the striatum was more strongly activated in female brains during prosocial decisions than during selfish decisions. By contrast, selfish decisions led to a stronger activation of the reward system in male brains.

However, in a second experiment, the reward system was disrupted by administering medication to the participants. Under these conditions, women behaved more selfishly, while men became more prosocial.

The latter result surprised the researchers.

Lead author Dr. Alexander Soutschek said, “These results demonstrate that the brains of women and men also process generosity differently at the pharmacological level.”

The results also have consequences for further brain research, with Soutschek stating that “future studies need to take into account gender differences more seriously.”

Even if these differences are evident at the biological level, Soutschek warns against assuming that they must be innate or of evolutionary origin.

“The reward and learning systems in our brains work in close cooperation. Empirical studies show that girls are rewarded with praise for prosocial behavior, implying that their reward systems learn to expect a reward for helping behavior instead of selfish behavior. With this in mind, the gender differences that we observed in our studies could best be attributed to the different cultural expectations placed on men and women.”

Researchers note this gender-specific learning reinforces prior findings that indicate significant cultural differences in the sensitivity of the reward system to prosocial and selfish behavior.

The study appears in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

Source: University of Zurich