A new study published in Nature Human Behavior suggests that those who value economic equity are more likely to be depressed. Those who are more selfish in that sense tend to be happier.
Three types of people
According to the model of “orientation to social value”, human beings can be placed in three approximate categories , according to their reactions to economic inequality.
60% of people are pro-social, which means that they prefer that resources be distributed equally among all. 30% are individualistic, which means that they are primarily interested in maximizing their own resources. Approximately 10% are competitive: for them, the most important result is to have more than other people.
Masahiko Haruno had already suggested in Nature Neuroscience that primordial brain structures like the amygdala “lie at the core of prosocial orientation.” In the study, prosocials have a strong activation of the amygdala, an ancient evolution region of the brain associated with automatic feelings of stress, when faced with an economic inequity.
In the new study mentioned, the question of whether this pro-social pattern of brain activation correlated with clinical symptoms of depression in the longer term was addressed. They examined the prosocial and individualistic brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Predictably, the prosocials had a great amygdala activity when they were exposed to situations in which money was distributed unevenly.
An additional finding in this study was that the hippocampus , another primitive brain region involved with automatic stress responses, also showed a different pattern of activity between pro-social and individualistic. After a depression test and a subsequent follow-up that lasted a year, they also tended to suffer more cases of depression.
It is not so strange if we consider that psychiatrists have long suggested that certain characteristics of personality, including extreme empathy and the propensity to feel guilty, are associated with the development of depression.
In general, the new findings are a little discouraging for pro-socials, but they can also be seen as an opportunity. Pro-socials are prone to experience guilt and stress when faced with economic inequality, and this seems to be connected to some of the deeper and more automatic structures of the brain. But by training higher-level brain processes such as the prefrontal cortex, pro-socials can learn to control these emotions and fight depression. Through psychotherapy, one can have it all: a central sensitivity to the inequity that can drive the kind behavior and the strength to keep these emotions under control to fight against depression.