David R. Henderson  

Cooperate with Others, Brain Feels Fuzzy

Krugman versus Krugman on Labo... Fellow Travelers Welcome...

I can almost guarantee that you won't have a clue what this post is about just by reading the title. How does it fit on an economics blog? Because it's about psychic rewards from helping make things work and go smoothly.

I had an experience this morning that led to a certain feeling and I've often had this kind of experience leading to this kind of feeling. I realize that I've never shared this with anyone. I wonder if other readers have had this kind of experience.

I was about to walk across a street at a corner where there is a 4-way stop. It's one of the busier corners in Monterey and so there's usually a fair amount of traffic. A pedestrian can really slow things down because when he walks across, he might be walking in front of a vehicle whose turn it was or whose turn it was about to be. Then that vehicle has to wait and other drivers at the other 3 stops aren't so sure who's going to go. That one pedestrian crossing can slow each of the 4 drivers waiting, and therefore the drivers behind them, unless one driver sees the situation and, knowing the pedestrian will "block" for him, goes out of turn. Still, even with that other aware driver, there's more waiting than there would have been without the pedestrian.

When I started to cross the street, I noticed a medium-sized Monterey bus that would then have to wait until I got past him in front of him to the other side. I sized up the situation quickly and realized that I could avoid stopping any of the flow if I jay-walked slightly and went behind him. So I caught the driver's attention, pointed at myself, and then pointed to the space behind him. The driver got the point, waved, and drove into the intersection.

So I helped make things work better. Here was my interesting physical reaction. I actually felt a part of my brain feel warm and fuzzy. It's hard to describe, but it was a pleasurable feeling and it's one I've often had in social situations where I see a Pareto-improving move I can make and I make it.

My question: Have any of you had similar experience where you help make things better for others with no pecuniary reward and no expectation of such a reward, and then had that warm fuzzy feeling in your brain?

Or am I just weird?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (26 to date)
Stephen Haessler writes:

Yes. Might this be the oxytocin that Paul Zak researches?

Dave writes:

Absolutely I've had that feeling, and also in traffic. I wonder if it's a product of cooperation, which you would feel regardless of the expectation of reward.

Daniel Shapiro writes:

I have had that feeling too. I wouldn't call it warm and fuzzy, but I do feel good after doing the kind of things you described. Or maybe I feel the warm part without the fuzzy part :-)

Harold Cockerill writes:

The Author of Nature strikes again.

Rick Hull writes:

My nature, for better or worse, is that of relentless optimization. Relative to the population at large, I seem to travel faster and take more "shortcuts" (in the broadest sense of the word). When other travelers are being oblivious and not facilitating efficient traffic flow, I take offense.

If I could promote just 2 rules of the road, they would be: don't get in others' way, and don't be ambiguous. (aka understand and respect right-of-way) I believe following these rules promotes both efficient flow and safety.

To answer the question more directly, I do get a nice psychic payoff from waving others through, even at my expense. It feels a little like karmic payment forward and also promotion of general positive culture. In my eyes, rigid rules of the road serve as guidelines and determination of fault in an actual conflict.

john hare writes:

It's not what I would call warm and fuzzy, but there's a definite lift from helping people that are trying to accomplish something useful. I remember handing a gallon of drinking water ($0.89) to a family waiting for help when their car broke down in Florida summer. I got far in excess of my moneys worth.

Rajat writes:

No, you're not weird. I like doing that sort of thing too - contributing to Pareto improvements. I wish more would.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Stephen Haessler,
Thanks. I looked it up. That could be it.
@john hare and Rajat,
Thanks. I know that it’s not weird to help others and enjoy it. My question is more specific: is it weird to get an actual funny fuzzy feeling in one part of my brain when I do it? A friend on Facebook, where I posted on this also, said he has actually had that feeling.

john hare writes:

@David, No idea, it's just a general feel-good thing with me.

Adam writes:

I'm sure this is a common occurrence amongst many decent people. However, with my cynical hat on I'd say it's probably not truly altruistic. You say there's no expectation of reward, but this is a repeated game. Consciously or unconsciously you're anticipating that the favour will be returned sometime.

Dick White writes:

Am surprised that comments haven't included the obvious---this is psychic income and it's wonderful--better than cash.

Joe Green writes:

Russ Roberts quotes Adam Smith as asserting that we all want to be "loved and lovely." Is your experience part of the deep human need to be "lovely?"

David R. Henderson writes:

Wow! I thought that many people who comment on economics posts that I write read carelessly; now I see that it’s more general.

Roger Sweeny writes:

I do similar things and I feel good but I don't feel "warm and fuzzy." (Is that reading carefully enough?)

MikeL writes:

From what I understand about behavior, adam has it right. Maybe we cooperate in expectation of a return favor, whether it's conscious or not. This behavior may not actually work in modern times since populations in some cities can be huge. But it's hard wired in us because we evolved in the context of much smaller populations where favors were more likely to be remembered. Maybe the fuzzy feeling is your brain's way of saying "remember this", and the bus driver's brain is saying "thanks dude, owe you one".

dave Killion writes:

I have done enough of this same sort of jay-walking lite that I have found myself occasionally walking out from behind one car only to have to stop for a left-or-right-turning vehicle that had no idea I was about to appear. It's startling for them, and awkward for me, and I'm now a little more cautious about the practice.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Roger Sweeny,
I do similar things and I feel good but I don't feel "warm and fuzzy." (Is that reading carefully enough?)
Yes. Thanks.

Floccina writes:

I feel the same way. I do not want to slow other down or get in their way.
BTW It seems to me that jay-walking is safer and more efficient than crossing at the corners.

BillD writes:

I can get a similar feeling when walking or biking. But not when driving. I think it's because walkers and bikers see the opportunities for cooperation much more than drivers. Their senses are generally more attuned to the task at hand than drivers who have 2 tons of steel and many distractions around them.

Hallie Scott Kline writes:

I feel good after doing 'good things' (and sometimes it's an unexpected feeling from an act that is just barely a good thing). But no, I've never had a physical sensation in the brain; not at all. Maybe some do, though-- I'd be curious to know.

dilys writes:

For me, it's based on a kind of temperament the Myers Briggs analysis calls "NT," intensely systems-aware. The kind of manipulation of my own behavior that by an intelligent maneuver costs me little and "adds value" to the overall experience of others, combines a cooperative/altruistic payoff with an intense aesthetic thrill. And no one else has to know, though it's more fun when there's the shared improv dance you shared with the driver.

That kind of artistic benevolence when possible and well executed lights up my day (and thus my neurology) more than extreme private good fortune or triumph. It's the interior immaterial equivalent of long life and prosperity.

Radiant Fuzzy Brain, yeah.

David R. Henderson writes:

And no one else has to know, though it's more fun when there's the shared improv dance you shared with the driver.
Beautifully said.
That kind of artistic benevolence when possible and well executed lights up my day (and thus my neurology) more than extreme private good fortune or triumph. It's the interior immaterial equivalent of long life and prosperity.
Yesss. (Misspelling intended.)

paulrg writes:

The fuzzy feeling's location is in the back of my neck.

Ernie Grafe writes:

I'll have to pay more attention to location next time, but for me it's more of a general fuzziness. (Do I dare call it a small rush?) I also stop at a corner to let cars turn when a long line of traffic is behind them. Seems the same as holding a door for someone struggling with a delivery cart or stroller, even though you were only walking by. It's being part of a "community."

The feeling is definitely enhanced by a wave or a smile, which I think is the making of a connection—an important thing we don't think of that often. Connecting is a vital part of being human.

Maybe expectation of a future favor is part of the equation for some, but that does not explain what is clearly a biological or chemical response in the body (as others have expressed here). Isn't cooperation one of the evolutionary memes? It's not just the survival of the fittest individual, but also of the fittest groups, which have for so long depended on the contribution of individuals. I wonder if that doesn't account for the immediate "reward" we feel, the sense of wholeness or happiness or satisfaction.

If I may carry this one step further, David, I think your (our) feeling could be linked to what happens after disasters—people helping each other or just being kinder. I think we're reminded then of being part of a community, all in the same boat. As Lead Belly sang, "Iif you shake one end, You gonna rock the other."

A writes:

I have similar physical reactions to cooperative altruistic behavior, but always after the fact. Only when recollecting events, anywhere from minutes to days later, do I appreciate the shared "good sense" and feel a pleasant glow.

Eric S. writes:

Perhaps Monty Python can help you understand your peculiar feeling


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