Paying taxes feels good, say researchers
- Paying taxes is a pleasurable duty
- 19:00 14 June 2007
- NewScientist.com news service
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Paying taxes feels good, say researchers.
The surprising discovery, based on brain scans, can also predict which people are most likely to donate cash to charity.
Bill Harbaugh at the University of Oregon in Eugene, US, and colleagues gave 19 female university students $100, and told them some of this money would have to go towards taxes.
Each volunteer then read a series of 60 separate taxation scenarios involving $0 to $45 in taxes, knowing that one of the scenarios would be selected at random and the related amount be subtracted from their $100.
As the participants viewed the tax scenarios, their brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Surprisingly, whenever the students read the taxation scenarios, scientists saw a spike in activity within two of the brain's reward centres – the nucleus accumbens and caudate nucleus.
Harbaugh says that people probably like paying taxes more than they admit. He believes the results of his new study help explain the widespread compliance with tax laws. "We like to complain about it, but based on what we do, we are not as opposed to it as we like to say," Harbaugh says.
Economist Robert Frank of Cornell University comments that tax-paying might stimulate positive feelings in the brain because the process helps equalise the burden of helping others.
Harbaugh then repeated the experiment, but instead of the money being given in taxation, the scenarios related to charity donations, and the participants could choose to give their money.
These brain scans suggest that donating money creates an even greater boost in brain reward centres than paying mandatory taxes.
Harbaugh explains this bigger boost has to do with the fact that voluntary donations are a personal choice: "You feel better because it was your agency that made the difference. Usually, when you are giving, people are watching," he says, which can be an ego boost.
Harbaugh was also able to predict a person's generosity based on their brain response to paying tax.
The 10 subjects who showed the greatest brain activity in response to hypothetical taxes in the first part of the study later chose to donate money twice as often as the other nine subjects.
At the end of the experiment, those whose brains responded more positively to tax-paying generally gave about $17 to charity, while the other nine subjects gave $10, on average.
Journal reference: Science (DOI: 10.1126/science.1140738)