Giving makes us happy

This post is also available in Dutch.

During the Winter holidays, we generously give to charity. This is puzzling from an economic perspective. But to the brain, giving is rewarding in the same way as receiving money.

glazen_huis_2011Each year, the Dutch donate millions of euros to charity, encouraged by three radio DJs trapped in a glass house without food for six days.
Photo: Wikimedia.

Christmas is a lucrative time for charities. From the Red Cross to the World Wildlife Fund, everyone is trying to get a piece of the pie during these chilly winter days. You might also be at your most generous during this time of year. And maybe you’ve wondered where that generosity came from. If so, you’re not alone.

Economists have pondered for years why people behave generously towards others. Why did we give away our money, if we could have spent it on that brand new entertainment center? Neuroscience research helps answer these puzzling questions.

In 2007, American neuroscientists showed that both receiving and donating money activated the same part of the human brain: the ventral striatum, a critical area in our reward system. This means that our brain processes both giving and receiving money to be rewarding and in the same area!

Clever experiment
The experiment, carried out by Bill Harbaugh and his colleagues from the University of Oregon, worked as follows…

Participants carried out the experiment while lying in an MRI scanner. At the start of the experiment they received a $100 endowment and were presented the name and description of a local food bank. Next, the participants were presented with various monetary transfers: money was transferred to their account (the $100), to the account of the food bank, or from their account to the food bank. Some transfers could be actively stopped or accepted by the participants, while others were mandatory.

Generous brains
When Harbaugh and his colleagues inspected the brain scans made during the experiment, they couldn’t believe their eyes! Brain activity in the ventral striatum, an important reward-related brain region, increased when money was transferred to the participants, but also when the participants saw money donated to the charity. The conclusion being, the reward response in our brain is activated when we both receive money and give away money to charity.

The researchers further investigated whether this reward response was also related to each participant’s level of generosity. Participants who were most generous, those who agreed to transfer money to the charity most often, their reward response when donating was greatest.

Therefore, it may be the case that your incredibly generous neighbor, or aunt gives so much to charity because their brains are highly responsive when donating. For these people, giving is simply more rewarding than for others.

New questions
When it comes to human nature, this study discovered a rather intimate piece of the puzzle. Apparently, we feel a sense of reward when we give money to charity, and this good feeling may be the prime motivation as to why we donate.

As all good scientific studies do, new and important questions were raised. For instance, if donating money feels good, is it still an altruistic act?… But let’s leave those philosophical issues for another blog. From all of us here at DondersWonders, Happy Holidays!

More information
The study by Harbaugh and colleagues

This blog was written by Jeroen. Edited by Marisha and Marpessa.

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