How Our Brains Make Us Generous

by Summer Allen, Jill Suttie

Economists and evolutionary psychologists have struggled to explain altruism and generosity. Are we helplessly selfish creatures destined to only do good when external factors promise satisfying, self-centered rewards? Or is altruism an innate part of human nature? Studies conducted by researchers Jamil Zaki of Stanford University, Jason Mitchell of Harvard University, and Adam Waytz of Northwestern University illuminate the relationship between empathy and altruism. Their studies offer an explanation as to why humans can be exceedingly prone to pro-social, generous behaviors.

Zaki, Mitchell, and Waytz conducted experiments in which participants were asked to distribute money to others or keep the money for themselves, conceptualize attitudes of individuals based on pictures, and help strangers solve difficult problems. They monitored participants’ brain activity in order to track mental responses to altruistic and empathetic behavior. They found that when people choose to act altruistically they showed a similar pattern of brain activity as when they received direct, personal rewards. Zaki likens this type of kindness and generosity to “psychological chocolate” because people feel good when they help others.

To find out more about the science behind altruism and generosity from the Greater Good Science Center, read the full article here: How Our Brains Make Us Generous