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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 | 1 comment

One comment at; “The Neurobiology of Charity”

  1. Bogdanova says:

    I also think that you should be caefrul about assuming that I am not part of the group of people labelled mentally ill as I do in fact have multiple diagnoses, have taken medication and am currently in therapy, so I think I have a pretty good handle on the insider perspective.I think you also misread my point, as part of what I was saying is that we SHOULDN’T simply throw drugs at mental illness since that does not follow from the science that studies mental illness, which shows (just like with physical health), that lifestyle changes are often more helpful, or need to be enacted in conjunction with drugs. I was simply saying that as skeptics, we can be a voice for asking what is the best way to treat mental diseases? How can we bring them into the sphere of concrete, treatable things instead of creating a woo around them that makes them either untouchable or the victim’s fault? That does not translate to all drugs all the time