A study using economic models backed up by fMRI scans to establish why people choose to cooperate rather than act selfishly has been conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona.
The study involved fMRI scans to target the regions of the brain associated with guilt. It also helped in understanding behavioural disorders linked with guilt, such as depression and anxiety.
According to researchers, guilt is the failure to live up to the expectations of others and the aversion to guilt acts as a motivational factor for cooperative behaviour.
"One idea is that most people cooperate because it feels good to do it. And there is some brain imaging data that shows activity in reward-related regions of the brain when people are cooperating," said Luke Chang, a doctoral student in the UA psychology department.
"But there is a whole other world of motivation to do good because you don't want to feel bad. That is the idea behind guilt aversion," he added.
To fortify their findings in guilt-ridden cooperation, the researchers conducted an experiment on 30 people.
The fMRI scans identified regions in the brain involved in guilt-motivated cooperation while test subjects made their decisions whether or not to honour a partner's trust.
Different areas of the brain became active during those decisions based on their choosing to cooperate, or to abuse the trust and maximize their own financial gain.
The results showed that "a neural system previously implicated in expectation processing plays a critical role in assessing moral sentiments that in turn can sustain human cooperation in the face of temptation."
The study has been published in the neuroscience journal Neuron.