A new study has found that mothers react faster and show stronger neural reactions when they anticipate winning a reward for their children than when they expect to win it for themselves. The results suggest that mothers might consider it more important to win rewards for their children than for themselves. The study was published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Reward processing in the brain is an intricate neural mechanism involved in evaluating and reacting to enjoyable or satisfying experiences. It includes the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. When an individual encounters a rewarding stimulus, such as food or enjoyable experiences, the brain’s reward system is activated and releases dopamine. This reward processing system aids in learning and remembering rewarding activities or items, thereby influencing an individual’s current and future choices and behaviors.
Research has consistently shown that the reward processing system reacts more intensely when individuals obtain rewards for themselves compared to when they acquire them for others, including friends, enemies, or charity programs. The intensity of the neural response varies depending on the psychological closeness of the person for whom the rewards are secured. Gaining rewards for a close friend or one’s mother elicits a stronger neural response than doing so for a stranger.
Study author Yan Zhang and his colleagues wanted to investigate the neural responses of mothers when they win rewards for their young children and compare them to how they respond when they win rewards for themselves or for a charity donation.
They conducted a study in which they analyzed event-related potential and event-related spectral perturbation data to infer about the underlying neural activity. Event-related potentials are changes in brain activity that happen as a response to specific events or stimuli, while event-related spectral perturbations provide information about the time and frequency characteristics of neural responses that happen in response to those events or stimuli. Both can be measured using electroencephalography (EEG).
The study included 31 mothers with children aged 2 to 6 years. The mothers, aged between 20 and 45 years, were all married, healthy, and had at least a bachelor’s degree. They received 200 CNY (approximately $28) for their participation.
In the experiment, the mothers played a game where they had to quickly respond to a target circle on the screen, colored either red or green. They pressed a button matching the circle’s color as quickly as possible. Before each circle’s appearance, a sign indicated whether a correct answer would yield a reward for themselves, their child, or a charity. A practice session before the experiment taught participants the meaning of each sign.
The game consisted of 480 trials. The reward for participants was a box of hand cream, while their children received a set of jigsaw puzzles. The charity rewards involved adding 0.3 CNY for each correct answer, with the total sum donated to a charity chosen by the participants after the experiment, amounting to roughly 20 CNY ($4) for each experimental condition.
During the experiment, participants wore electroencephalography electrodes to record brain activity. Afterward, they answered questions about their feelings upon winning rewards for themselves, their children, or charity, their perceived deservingness and effort exerted for each reward, and completed assessments of inhibition and approach tendencies towards rewards (the Behavioral Inhibition and Activation System scale) and closeness with their child (the Inclusion of Other in the Self scale).
Results showed that mothers had significantly shorter reaction times when they were playing to win the reward for their children than when they were playing for themselves. Mothers’ reaction times were shorter when mothers were playing for themselves than when they were playing for a charity donation. In other words, mothers were the fastest in their responses when they played for their children, a bit slower when they played for themselves and the slowest when they played for charity.
Neural responses mirrored this pattern, being strongest when mothers competed for their children, weaker for themselves, and weakest for charity. However, despite quicker reactions and more robust neural activity, the accuracy of mothers’ responses was not higher. The researchers noted that the game’s software used an adaptive algorithm to balance task difficulty, ensuring a mix of correct and incorrect responses.
Participants reported that they felt greater pleasure when winning rewards for the child than when doing it for a donation. They also reported exerting more effort in those conditions.
“Overall, these findings advance our understanding of the neural mechanisms of altruistic reward processing and suggest that the priority of winning a reward for one’s child may transcend the limits of the self-advantage effect in reward processing,” study authors concluded.
The study sheds light on the functioning of the reward processing system of mothers. However, it should be noted that the study sample was very small, all participants were mothers of preschool children and had university education. Results might not be the same on mothers of older children or from different demographic groups.
The study, “Mothers exhibit higher neural activity in gaining rewards for their children than for themselves”, was authored by Yan Zhang, Yachao Rong, and Ping Wei.