A study into how the brain reacts when individuals decide to give has shown that the reward areas of the brain are activated both during altruistic generosity, as well as when there is something to be gained.
Psychologists at the University of Sussex analysed existing research showing the brain scans relating to over 1000 people making decisions to give: from 36 existing studies relating to 1150 participants whose brains were scanned with fMRI scans over a ten-year period. They split the analysis between what happens in the brain when people act out of genuine altruism – where there’s nothing in it for them – and when they act with strategic kindness – when there is something to be gained as a consequence.
They found that reward areas of the brain are more active, for example using up more oxygen, when people act with strategic kindness. However, they also found that acts of altruism, with no hope of personal benefit, also activate the reward areas of the brain, with some brain regions more active during altruistic generosity.
Dr Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, the study’s lead and Director of the Social Decision Laboratory at the University of Sussex, said:
“This sparks questions about people having different motivations to give to others: clear self-interest versus the warm glow of altruism. We know that people can choose to be kind because they like feeling like they are a ‘good person’, but also that people can choose to be kind when they think there might be something ‘in it’ for them such as a returned favour or improved reputation. What motivates us to be kind is both fascinating and important. If, for example, governments can understand why people might give when there’s nothing in it for them, then they can understand how to encourage people to volunteer, donate to charity or support others in their community.”
Jo Cutler, who co-authored the study, added:
“The finding of different motivations for giving raises all sorts of questions, including what charities and organisations can learn about what motivates their donors. Organisations looking for contributions should think about how they want their customers to feel. Do they want them to feel altruistic, and experience a warm glow, or do they want them to enter with a transactional mind-set?”
“Given that we know there are these two motivations which overlap in the brain, charities should be careful not to offer something which feels like a token gesture, as this might undermine a sense of altruism. Sending small gifts in return for a monthly donation could change donors’ perceptions of their motivation from altruistic to transactional. In doing so, charities might also inadvertently replace the warm glow feeling with a sense of having had a bad deal.”
The study, A comparative fMRI meta-analysis of altruistic and strategic decisions to give, is available online.
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