Cognitive Neuroscience (neuroscience and altruism) – Masters level, APA Scholarly Writing Only


Where do our thoughts come from? Are they byproducts of brain activities, somehow electrically and chemically manufactured in the gray matter and then exported to the mind? Or are they distinct from and unconstrained by the biological workings of the brain? These questions intrigued seventeenth-century philosopher Rene Descartes and continue to occupy present-day scholars.

One of the most interesting and emotional debates argued by Descartes’s intellectual heirs involves the origin of thought. This version of the nature-versus-nurture question is well understood: Are we the products of our genes, or are we what we have experienced? Today, we do have some scientific answers. For example, Roger Sperry, Nobel laureate in medicine, found that the circuits of the brain are, for the most part, hard-wired during embryonic development, suggesting that each cell possesses its own chemical individuality, rendering it unmodifiable (Horowitz, 1997).

For this 5–8-page assessment, you will evaluate the connection (if any) that you see between neuroscience and altruism. In addition, you will assess how the history of cognitive and affective psychology supports your position and how understanding the interplay between these two topics can impact your professional practice.

Based on what you know and have read on the ethical brain, evaluate the connection (if any) that you see between neuroscience and altruism. In a 5–8-page paper, address the following:

  • How does cognitive psychology help us understand altruism, if at all?
    • Examine how cultural differences could impact this debate.
  • Include an assessment of how the history of cognitive and affective psychology supports your position.
  • Finally, assess how understanding the interplay of these two topics can impact your professional practice.

By successfully completing this assignment, you will do the following:

  • Explain how the field of cognitive and affect psychology evolved into a recognized psychological discipline.
    • Assess how the history of cognitive and affective psychology supports a position.
  • Evaluate the theories and principles that pertain to the cognitive components of cognitive and affective psychology.
    • Evaluate the connection between neuroscience and altruism.
  • Explain how the theories and principles of cognitive and affective psychology can be incorporated into professional practice.
    • Assess how understanding neuroscience and altruism can impact professional practice.
  • Explain how the theories and principles of cognitive and affective psychology apply to diverse populations.
    • Explain the impact of cultural differences on neuroscience and altruism.
  • Communicate in a manner that is scholarly, professional, and consistent with expectations for members of the psychological professions.
    • Communicate in a manner that is scholarly, professional, and consistent with expectations for members of the psychological professions.


The following e-books and articles are linked directly in this course.

You are encouraged to refer to the resources in the Cognitive/Affective Psychology Library Guide to help direct your research.

Internet Resources

The Resources Listed Below:

Covers research in neuroscience and altruism and are relevant to the topics and assessments in this course and are not required.

Sternberg, R. J., & Sternberg, K. (2012). Cognitive psychology (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

  • Chapter 2 “Cognitive Neuroscience.”

Can neuroscience explain complex human traits such as altruism?

Pfaff (2007) argues that nearly every cultural system, past and present, has a type of golden rule: a rule so ingrained in human behavior as to be “intellectually invisible” (p. 7) and rarely questioned. But where does it come from? Pfaff (2007) explains:

Some experts would claim this principle is a product of evolution. Individuals who behave altruistically—that is, they aid others, even at some cost to themselves—help their group to survive better and ultimately to produce more offspring like themselves. The impulses toward this behavior have been passed down along with the rest of the genetic code for the human brain, and now appear not only in behavior but also in brain activity that we can detect and track. If this is so, we can understand why this rule and its many variations have survived in human ethical systems, philosophies, and religions. (pp. 7–8)

If you agree with the experts (Pfaff mentions that we are biologically predisposed to altruism), then would it logically follow that altruism is not limited to human behavior? Consider the following comments by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan (1992):

In a laboratory setting, macaques [rhesus monkeys] were fed if they were willing to pull a chain and electrically shock an unrelated macaque whose agony was in plain view through a one-way mirror. Otherwise, they starved. After learning the ropes, the monkeys frequently refused to pull the chain; in one experiment only 13% would do so—87% preferred to go hungry. One macaque went without food for nearly two weeks rather than hurt its fellow. Macaques who had themselves been shocked in previous experiments were even less willing to pull the chain. The relative social status or gender of the macaques had little bearing on their reluctance to hurt others. (p. 117)

After pointing out the cruelty of the experiment (“our own moral sympathies do not lie with the scientists”), Sagan and Druyan (1992) note:

By conventional human standards, these macaques—who have never gone to Sunday School, never heard of the Ten Commandments, never squirmed through a single junior high school civics lesson—seem exemplary in their moral grounding and their courageous resistance to evil. (p. 117)

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have studied the influence of genes and the environment on psychological traits of identical (monozygotic or MZ) and fraternal (dizygotic or DZ) twins raised together and apart (Minnesota Twin Family Study, n.d.). Their findings are summarized below:

Preliminary analyses of the data so far collected, on some 2,400 twin pairs, suggest that the broad heritability of socioeconomic status, years of education, and present income level ranges from about 0.30 to 0.40. Not surprisingly, education and SES are correlated positively with Positive Emotionality and Self Esteem, negatively correlated with negative Emotionality and Alienation. There is a weak but significant tendency for twins from larger families to produce more offspring themselves. The within-pair correlation for number of offspring, for MZ pairs where both twins have been married, is about 0.30, which should be compared with a maximum possible correlation on the order of 0.50. Similarly, the risk of divorce, like procreation, is a two-person game, and should probably be compared with a maximum possible risk of about 0.50. This risk is nearly 3 times the risk for MZ twins whose co-twin has never been divorced. Since all of these variables – attained SES, years of education, family income, number of offspring, risk of divorce – are plainly complex, multi-factorial outcome variables, it is clear that this evidence of significant heritability implies that many of the diverse personality, interest, and aptitude variables that act together to influence these outcomes are themselves substantially influenced by genetic variation. (p. 3)

John E. Dowling, in his 2004 book The Great Brain Debate: Nature or Nurture, summarizes things nicely (Dowling, 2004):

What the neurobiology is telling us—bottom line—is that genetic directives are clearly most critical in brain building, although the environment can also play some role, whereas environmental factors play the fundamental role during brain maturation, although there is genetic restraint. (p. 165)


Dowling, J. E. (2004). The great brain debate: Nature or nurture?Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press.

Horowitz, N. H. (1997). Roger Wolcott Sperry. Retrieved from…

Minnesota Twin Family Study. (n.d.). The Minnesota twin family registry: Some initial findings. Retrieved from

Pfaff, D. W. (2007). The neuroscience of fair play: Why we (usually) follow the Golden Rule. New York, NY: Dana Press.

Sagan, C., & Druyan, A. (1992). Shadows of forgotten ancestors: Earth before humans. New York, NY: Random House.