The Selfish Reasons Behind Why We Give

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Feeling good about our actions — not guilt or pity— motivates giving, according to the latest research.

Although seeing or hearing about suffering children makes most people uncomfortable, that distress is not what drives them to dig into their pockets and donate. The reasons people decide to be altruistic, it turns out, may be slightly more selfish.

In the study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers found that people are more likely to give when they think it will make them feel better. They donate, for example, when they feel hope about putting smiles on those expectant and suffering faces. And that hope, or similar feel-good sensations, are driven by the brain‘s reward systems.

Researchers — and charities — have long known that putting a specific face on an abstract problem opens hearts and wallets. Josef Stalin once said that while one death is a tragedy, a million is merely a statistic. Studies have since found that quantifying the size of a disaster or particular need paradoxically lowers giving, while presenting a single story without explicit numbers is more likely to prompt a desire to help.

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But it wasn’t clear whether this “identifiable victim” effect resulted from people’s guilt over their own privilege and resources and a desire to share them— or from a sense of connection with the victim and an urge to feel good about making a difference.

To find out, researchers led by Alexander Genevsky, a graduate student in psychology at Stanford, imaged the brains of 22 young adults. In the scanner, they saw either a silhouette identified as an orphan and refugee in the Darfur region of Sudan— or a head shot of a young African child. Earlier, they were each given $15 (in addition to a $15 hourly fee for participating in the experiment), which they were told they could either keep or donate to a partnership the researchers had with a Sudanese orphanage. Each image was presented along with a request for a specific donation, ranging from $1 to $12.

As in prior studies, participants were far more likely to give if they saw a face than a blank silhouette— donating almost twice as much in photo trials than in the others. However, this decision was related strongly to their emotions. If they showed little activity in their nucleus accumbens— a brain region linked to every type of pleasurable experience— they were actually less likely to give. But if activity in this reward area spiked, they felt good and gave more. And the photos of the children were more likely to activate this reward center. Activity in the accumbens, in fact, completely accounted for the difference in giving seen between the silhouette-based requests and the photo-based ones.

“We’re finding that the reason people give to identifiable victims is because of the emotional impact it has— and specifically, the more positive emotion, the more impact,” says Genevsky.

Of course, not everyone was equally rewarded by the pictures of the children; people vary widely in their experience of positive emotions and this is due in part to how engaged their nucleus accumbens may be. (People with depression or addiction often experience changes in this region that are contribute to pleasurelessness and lack of positive moods.) In the study, 10% of people gave at every opportunity and another 10% never gave at all, representing the extremes, while about 80% of the participants gave when the photos lifted their moods and activated their reward systems.

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While the findings point to the feel-good motivations behind giving, other research will have address the question of why givers get that positive emotional boost. Do people feel rewarded when they give because they think about the happiness of the recipient — or do they feel good because they see themselves as generous and that self-esteem boost is mood-enhancing?

“The next step is to understand what are the differences, even along the spectrum of that middle 80% but especially at the extreme ends,” Genevsky says. Such information could help charities tailor their messages to maximize their effectiveness. For now, he says, “Charities might want to gear their public materials and brochures to [emphasize] positive outcomes of charitable aid,” which are more likely to activate the pleasure centers in the brain and help givers to feel good about their actions, rather than focusing on how needy the victims are.