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Bruno Dubuc, Patrick Robert, Denis Paquet, and Al Daigen




Monday, 21 May 2012
The Neurobiology of Charity

mendiant As the holiday season approaches, a traditional time for charitable giving, what do we know about this behaviour from a neuroscientific standpoint? Well, first of all, we know that it activates the brain’s dopaminergic reward circuits. We also now know that the old saying “It’s better to give than to receive” has a neurobiological basis: these reward circuits are typically activated more when you give money, for example, than when you receive it.

However, studies such as those by Paul Slovic’s research team have shown that we are more inclined to be generous when we are shown an identifiable victim (for instance, a photo of a starving child in an African refugee camp) than when we are shown statistics documenting a far more sweeping problem (that millions of African children are malnourished). In an experiment where subjects were given $5 in $1 bills and asked to make donations, the donations averaged $2.50 when the subjects were told about an identifiable starving child, but only about 50 cents when they were told about the same problem on a broader scale.

Thus, our decision whether to give or not seems to be grounded directly in the emotions that another human being can arouse in us, far more than in any rational analysis of statistics, however striking. And nothing could be more natural, when you consider our long evolutionary history, in which contact with other human beings has always been of the greatest importance for a social species such as ours.

Many charities have long taken advantage of this behavioural phenomenon in their advertising. But now that you know that it is at work in your brain, perhaps you can make somewhat more conscious decisions about where giving your money will do the most good (and give you the most pleasure).

i_lien To give or not to give: It’s all about the brain
a_lien To Increase Charitable Donations, Appeal to the Heart — Not the Head
i_lien The Frontal Cortex (Jonah Lehrer’s Blog)

Pleasure and Pain | 4 comments »


4 comments at; “The Neurobiology of Charity”

  1. Stacky says:

    I would advise you to be more skectipal about the claims for a biological basis for mental illness, as they are in fact myths propped up by heavy doses of pharmaceutical company money. Read Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic , which goes into some detail showing peer-reviewed studies debunking pharma company claims that mental illness is primarily an imbalance of brain chemicals . You might also appreciate the point of view of groups made up of people diagnosed as mentally ill and often abused by the systems set up to treat them, which are seeking to shift away from diagnosis-based treatment towards care that takes into account individual life histories and emphasizes social supports. My view is that putting people into boxes labeled bipolar or schizophrenic and then looking for the best drugs for them, rather than looking at their whole lives and helping them figure out how to make real life changes, is in itself disrespectful. Not to mention the real problem of coercive and abusive treatment see the MindFreedom website if you want to learn more about this issue and fight it.

  2. [...] findings are nevertheless consistent with those that other scientists have made regarding the neurobiology of charity and point to some very deep biological origins for behaviours that do good for others—with all [...]

  3. [...] findings are nevertheless consistent with those that other scientists have made regarding the neurobiology of charity and point to some very deep biological origins for behaviours that do good for others—with all [...]

  4. [...] findings are nevertheless consistent with those that other scientists have made regarding the neurobiology of charity and point to some very deep biological origins for behaviours that do good for others—with all [...]

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