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Meet the neuroscientists researching charity giving

Meet the neuroscientists researching charity giving

Earlier this month fundraisers met researchers at the University of Sussex to find out how neuroscience techniques could help them to understand better how and why people give to charity.

The one-day event was part of the 2017 Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Festival of Social Science which is designed to promote awareness of social science research by enabling scientists to engage with the public through debates, talks, workshops, and seminars.

The Social Decision Lab at the University of Sussex uses neuroscience techniques to understand how we take others into account when making decisions.

One focus of its research is on how we value the lives of other people when deciding whether or not to donate to charity. By looking at activity in the brain during these decisions the researchers claim that it is possible to separate the most altruistic from those where a selfish motivation is also at play.


Fundraisers, volunteers, and others with an interest in the research and its implications were invited to an open day to find out more, to learn about and try out the Lab’s research methods, and to hear about the latest results.

The researchers are considering why the death of one person seems a tragedy yet the death of thousands can sometimes be harder to relate to, or less of a powerful call to give to charity. Instead of asking people about their views, the Social Decision Lab team conducted experiments to measure their heartbeat and stress from their fingertips, and treating them to a maths test.

Social Decision Lab experiment at ESRC Festival

Testing responses at the Social Decision Lab open day.


Social Decision Lab experiment at ESRC Festival

Psychology and charitable giving being put to the test.


The ESRC is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. 

The Social Decision Lab’s open day was one of over 300 free events across the UK in the Festival of Social Science.

Jo Cutler, an ESRC-funded PhD Student at the Sussex University School of Psychology, helped put on the event. As well as blogging on her research findings at The Charitable Brain, she will be sharing some of her and her colleagues research findings at the Insight in Fundraising annual conference on 27 November in London.

WATCH: One fundraiser’s thoughts on meeting the neuroscientists researching charity giving


Howard Lake is a digital fundraising entrepreneur. Publisher of UK Fundraising, the world's first web resource for professional fundraisers, since 1994. Trainer and consultant in digital fundraising. Founder of Fundraising Camp.

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