Linkage 4/16: The Warm Glow of Tax Day

751px-tea_party_sign_-_taxpayer_march_on_washingtonTaxation With Neural Representation

Hopefully, all of you reading remembered that yesterday was that least enjoyable of holidays, the deadline to file taxes. If you didn’t remember, um, sorry. The act of filling out and paying taxes is known anecdotally to produce feelings of nausea, panic, and in some cases, language deficits. But is there any scientific evidence for an actual effect of taxation upon physiology?

Actually, there is! In 2007, University of Oregon scientists in the field of neuroeconomics, a relatively young discipline devoted to studying how financial decisions are encoded by brain activity, published in Science an experiment on how our brains react to taxation vs. donation. Using fMRI to take live images of neural activity, William Harbaugh and colleagues gave subjects $100 and ran them through trials where they either had the choice of donating money to a food bank or were “taxed” in the form of a mandatory donation. People reported that they were 10 percent more satisfied with the voluntary donation compared to the mandatory donation – not a big surprise. But the brain also reflected these different reactions; even though the money went to the same place (the food bank), a voluntary donation more strongly activated brain areas usually associated with reward such as the striatum, nucleus accumbens, and caudate nucleus.

I wrote about the study when it came out for the Chicago Tribune, but focused mostly on the “warm glow” effect of altruism as a potential motivator for the seemingly self-injurious process of donating money. But one could also turn it around the other way and say that the mandatory donation, or taxation, was significantly less rewarding, both in subject’s lower self-reported satisfaction and reduced brain activity. It’s likely that the aversive experience of taxation was even under-measured by this study, where subjects knew where those mandatory taxations were going: to a food bank, hardly a politically controversial cause. Presumably, if money was merely taken away from subjects’ accounts without a subsequent bump in the food bank’s accounts, the response would have been even more negative.

Checking Harbaugh’s site (where you can watch a video of the 3rd James Bond explaining this study), it doesn’t appear that any followup studies have been published as of yet that could better illustrate the brain’s response to taxation. The lessons for real life are also unclear; presumably it would make us all feel better to make voluntary donations rather than have to fill out tax forms every April, but that seems to rely a bit too much on the honor system to keep government services funded. Perhaps the IRS can borrow a portion of the study’s findings and blunt the pain of taxes just a bit by being more clear about where taxes are going – an educated taxpayer may find the experience at least marginally less miserable.

Conflicts in Religious Hospitals

Last week, we talked about the ethics research of Daniel Sulmasy on the occasion of his appointment to President Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. In reading through a sampling of his articles, I was struck by how Sulmasy had blended his religious training (as a Franciscan friar) with his medical training, approaching delicate issues such as end-of-life care from both perspectives and reaching conclusions true to both. But religion and medicine are not always such benevolent roommates, as a new study by Debra Stulberg and Farr Curlin from the University of Chicago Medical Center finds.

Roughly one-fifth of hospital beds in the United States are at hospitals with religious affiliations, so Stulberg and Curlin surveyed doctors to see if they had ever experienced a conflict with such institutions over patient care. Over 40 percent of physicians had worked in a religious hospital, and of those, 19 percent said they had experienced at least one conflict over religious hospital policies. A majority of survey respondents thought that patients should be referred to another hospital in such cases, but Stulberg commented to the University of Chicago News Office that this is not always possible.

“This study is the first to systematically ask physicians whether religious hospital policies conflict with their judgment,” Stulberg said. “We found that for a significant number of physicians, they do.”

More coverage of this study can be found at the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Times.


Bit Torrent is a program frequently used for illegally downloading music and movies…er, so I hear. But Jonathan Eisen, an evolutionary biologist and frequent blogger/twitterer, is now proposing that the service can be used to tackle the growing problem of how large datasets can be shared between scientists.

Also in PLoS One this week is this pure nightmare fuel: Tyrannobdella rex, a new species of leech discovered in Peru that…wait for it…climbs into people’s noses. AHHHHHH! Evolutionary analysis follows, but it’s not very comforting either.

Some media outlets picked up on an easy eyegrabber study about kids who seemingly form no racial stereotypes this week. But the genetic disorder in those kids, called Williams Syndrome, is not a new discovery, and Discovery blogger Ed Yong does a nice job of putting this latest study into context and sniffing out some potential flaws.

About Rob Mitchum (518 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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