Philippines Relief: The Emerging Science of Why We Give

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After natural disasters, human beings are inherently altruistic, and want to help their fellow man, right? Well, it turns out to be a little more complicated than that.

Yes, for social creatures like ourselves, there are evolutionary advantages to helping those in need. That’s why, after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, hotel owners took in displaced families, Americans around the country hopped on planes or drove down to Louisiana to cook, clean, build homes, or simply provide hugs and moral support to those devastated by the storm. Following 9/11 selfless rescue workers and volunteers donated their time, and often lost their lives, to help victims of the terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania.

But interesting patterns emerge when researchers investigate things like how quickly people reach for their wallets after a tragedy, and how much they donate. Here’s what the latest science says about what makes us give.

Seeing real faces makes us want to help more

An image of an orphan, or a refugee, or a family displaced by a storm is more likely to generate empathy than a silhouette or landscape of devastation. That makes sense, since the former can elicit feelings of ‘That could be me,” and tap into those evolutionary instincts to help members of our human community. In a recent study led by scientists at Stanford University, participants were more likely to donate all or part of $15 they were provided in the study when they saw head shots of orphans or refugees rather than silhouettes.

Stress can work both ways when it comes to giving

Even strong Good Samaritan instincts can be tested, and weakened. In one study, people with certain versions of social behavior genes, such as those that are involved in the regulation of the hormone oxytocin, which has been linked to the strength of the bonds that people make with each other, are less likely to donate if they are emotionally or physically stressed. The trend also held for people who felt they couldn’t trust others or who believed that the world was a threatening place. The more anxious and uncomfortable you feel, the less likely you are to have the emotional resources to feel empathy for others.

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But another byproduct of stress – distraction – can have the opposite effect on charitable giving, at least among loved ones. People who are distracted by work or family issues, for example, are more likely to sacrifice themselves and take on onerous tasks to help others because they don’t have the mental bandwidth to say no. Again, this also stems from a broader sense of altruism that benefits the whole at the expense of the individual. As TIME reported in describing the study last July, “In communal relationships, the habitual behavior is to take care of each other’s needs,” the study’s lead author, Francesca Righetti, assistant professor of psychology at VU University in Amsterdam, said.

We give because it makes us feel good

We may not like to admit it, but donating our time or money may not be as altruistic as it sounds. As TIME’s Maia Szalavitz wrote about a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience in October:

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.

Selflessness, in other words, may be a product of selfishness. And brain scans of subjects made while making charitable decisions revealed why. In the same study of volunteers who were shown silhouettes or head shots of orphans and refugees, those whose reward regions were more active when they saw the head shots were more likely to give than those whose reward regions were quieter – suggesting that at least part of the motivation for donating is to make the donor feel good.

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Whatever motivates us, it’s likely that donations to the Philippines will pick up in coming weeks. The United Nations has already provided $25 million from its central emergency fund and launched a campaign to raise $301 million to help victims of the typhoon. If the latest science is any indication, that effort should probably hit people when they aren’t facing a deadline at work and should include some reminder that doing good can make you feel good too.