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Research Suggests Generosity Is Hardwired Into Our Brains

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Research Suggests Generosity Is Hardwired Into Our Brains

Research Suggests Generosity Is Hardwired Into Our Brains

Research Suggests Generosity Is Hardwired Into Our Brains

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

If generosity makes us happy, and lots of research suggests that it does, why do many of us find it difficult to be generous?


This is the season for giving. But you might wonder what motivates us to be generous. Do we feel pressure because it's this time of year and others around us are doing it? Well, new research suggests no. The impulse to be generous is actually hardwired into our brains. Here's NPR's Shankar Vedantam.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: When Lara Aknin was about 8 she offered her 4-year-old brother a business proposition. She asked him to trade his dimes for her nickels.

LARA AKNIN: I used to trick him by telling him that dimes were worth less than nickels or nickels were worth more than dimes because coins were valued based on their size.

VEDANTAM: When her brother excepted the deal, Aknin did what many 8 year olds might do.

AKNIN: I would trade him a whole bunch of nickels for dimes essentially allowing me to double my value and would go march off and buy myself a lot of candy.

VEDANTAM: Aknin recognized that what she was doing was not very nice. But the reason she did it was the same reason lots of people cut corners.

AKNIN: I was after gaining some more money and I thought, you know, having this extra disposable income would allow me to spend the money on myself and make me happier.

VEDANTAM: What Aknin didn't realize is that this intuition, the intuition that spending money on herself would make her happier, this intuition wasn't quite right. Aknin is now a psychologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada. In several research experiments she's found something that might have shocked her 8-year-old self. Her big mistake was not in stealing money from her brother - well, that was pretty mean - but the real mistake psychologically speaking was in spending her ill-gotten gains on herself.

AKNIN: Perhaps I would've been happier or at least our research suggests that I would have been happier if I spent that extra cash on him.

VEDANTAM: Here's how she knows that - in one of her experiments young children, toddlers, are asked to share a treat with a stuffed animal, a cute, monkey puppet.

AKNIN: They were told that the puppet really like eating treats. And then the children were given a little stash if you will of edible treats.

VEDANTAM: The toddlers were videotaped as they received treats and as they offer treats to the cute monkey.

AKNIN: We videotaped them and later coded their faces for smiling behavior, hoping that would provide some insight into positive emotions or happiness.

VEDANTAM: If getting treats was what made the children happy you would expect they would be happiest when they received treats, not when they shared their treats. And remember these were toddlers. They hadn't yet learned rules about generosity. You might expect them to be naturally selfish. Aknin says she was surprised by what she saw.

AKNIN: Children smiled significantly more when they were giving treats away than when they received the treats themselves. But what we thought was particularly exciting was that children actually smiled significantly more when they gave away their own treat than an identical treat provided by the experimenter.

VEDANTAM: Giving up something that belonged to them, their own treasure, this is what seemed to children happiest. Other experiments have found the same thing with adults.

AKNIN: We recruited a sample of students in the morning hours on campus, gave them either five or $20 to spend that day and simply asked them to spend the money either on themselves or on someone else. And then we called them back in the evening to find out how they were feeling. And what we found was that people who were randomly assigned to spend the money on others were significantly happier than those who spent on themselves.

VEDANTAM: The interesting thing about generosity is that it's a double-edged sword. Giving up things can be painful. But it can also make people happy. Aknin and other scientists are studying the conditions under which generosity fuels happiness. One thing they found is that being forced to be generous is not a good way to make people happy.

AKNIN: If you force people to act generously you can really undermine those emotional rewards.

VEDANTAM: At the University of Chicago economist John List, who also studies generosity and altruism, says he's noticed the same thing in his own behavior. He finds himself responding cautiously to invitations to charity events.

JOHN LIST: I find myself more calculating in the dinners that I attend, the banquets that I attend, the events that I attend. I certainly like to give to charitable causes, but I also do not like to give to causes that apply a lot of pressure to me to give.

VEDANTAM: Experiments by Aknin, List and others are starting to unlock the mechanisms that link generosity with happiness. The study with toddlers suggest that being generous isn't merely something we learn to do. The impulse to generosity seems hardwired in our brains.

AKNIN: And it's possible that, you know, we as humans have kind of evolved to feel good about giving. And it's really that happiness that fuels this act giving.

VEDANTAM: In other words it isn't wrong to hope for nice presents over the holidays, but the real pleasure might lie in the giving. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.

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