The Science of Giving: What Fuels Our Desire to Help Others?

By Colby Gallagher

Published on October 17, 2019

Donating to a GoFundMe, feeding the homeless at a soup kitchen, or collecting school supplies for underserved communities. These acts of generosity are all ways to help others, yet they often boost the happiness of the donor. This positive effect isn’t a coincidence.

Heidi Freeman PhD“Giving and being generous activates the ‘reward centers’ in the brain—the same areas that light up when we experience pleasurable things, like a good meal,” said HEIDI FREEMAN, PhD, assistant dean of students and adjunct assistant professor. “Studies have also found that when we give back, the neural pathways that underlie caregiving are activated, showing a similar pattern as when a parent is caring for their child.” 

Alysson Light PhDWhen a person decides whether or not they want to contribute time or money, they take many factors into consideration, including if there is an emotional connection to the person or cause, or even if they are in a hurry. ALYSSON LIGHT, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at USciences, said researchers like psychologist Dan Batson have identified the factors that can inhibit helping and have created a flow chart of sorts. 

“First, we have to identify that someone is in need,” said Dr. Light. “If there are a lot of other people around and none of them are helping, we might assume that they know better than we do and the victim doesn’t actually need help. Second, we have to have some level of emotional reaction to the event.” If the emotional reaction is fear, specifically fear for our own safety, that may override the decision to help, said Dr. Light. 

If donors know exactly where their donation is going, they may be more encouraged to give. One may think a person is more likely to help when the recipient is a large group, but Dr. Light said studies show exactly the opposite. The “Single Identifiable Victim Effect” describes how people are much more likely to offer aid to a single, identifiable victim rather than a group of people.

“This is driven by a decrease in the empathic concern people feel and is captured by the line ‘one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is just a statistic,’” said Dr. Light, citing one explanation in recent research by Daryl Cameron, which said potential donors may feel overwhelmed by the needs of many people and feel less able to help. Once a person is overwhelmed by the issue, she said emotion regulation kicks in, reducing a person’s empathetic concern.

“I think there is an element of hope that is necessary in order to give back, and it tends to make people feel like they are doing something even if it is small."

-- Alysson Light PhD, assistant professor of psychology

Empathetic concern research is a line of focus for psychologists who are trying to answer whether people are ever purely altruistic or if they donate or help due to self-interest. “It’s a thorny question, since even if we don’t benefit directly, we might benefit by making other people think highly of us, raising our social status,” said Dr. Light.

Research suggests socioeconomic status and empathic concern may be linked. Studies show those with a lower socioeconomic status give a greater percentage of their income to charity than wealthier people. People who have lower socioeconomic status may be more likely to perceive the needs of others and therefore experience that empathetic concern that motivates giving. 

Donors may also be motivated by results. Dr. Freeman points to research that shows that knowing the impact of a donation helps fuel the desire to give.

“I think there is an element of hope that is necessary in order to give back, and it tends to make people feel like they are doing something even if it is small,” she said.

 The Science of Giving“Generosity tends to create upward spirals. You give back. You feel good about it. You do it again. You feel better, et cetera,” said Dr. Freeman.

Another question for psychologists studying the science behind the act of giving is how the publicity or knowledge surrounding a donation affects one’s willingness to participate. There are two types of identity-related concerns when it comes to this research, according to Dr. Light: social-signaling and self-signaling.

Social-signaling is when we’re trying to control how others view us, and so it increases donations when they can be made public. 

“Someone who is trying to social signal their generosity and connection to an institution is the kind of person who might want a building named after them, but that’s hardly the only reason people donate,” she said.

Giving and being generous activates the 'reward centers' in the brain—the same areas that light up when we experience pleasurable things, like a good meal.

-- Heidi Freeman PhD, assistant dean of students and adjunct assistant professor

Self-signaling is when we’re less concerned about how others see us and more concerned with how we see ourselves. Self-signaling can actually be undermined by opportunities for social signaling, said Dr. Light. A person who wants to believe they are generous would be less likely to donate if their donations were made public, because they may question if their intentions are pure.

“This helps to explain why some donors really don’t want their donations made public,” said Dr. Light. “It can corrupt the altruistic feeling of helping by bringing in the potential for social gain.”

Dr. Freeman says there is no “wrong” reason to be generous, but those who give because they choose to often report feeling happier. The benefits can go beyond a simple boost in mood or sense of gratitude, however.

“Studies show a general health effect—people who give back or volunteer regularly show better overall health and, in older people, greater longevity,” said Dr. Freeman. “If they are generous and give back regularly, they are less likely to experience the detrimental health effects of stress and less likely to experience burnout at work.”

Categories: News, Research, Misher College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Behavior and Social Sciences, Psychology, Faculty