Thursday, December 23, 2010

Your Brain and Gift GIving

Tis the season to give!  We give for a variety of reasons.  Around Christmas time, we are exhorted to give gifts not only to our loved ones.  During these uncertain times,  we also give to charity. Why?

A new initiative at the University of Notre Dame called the Science of Generosity is looking into just that. It’s uniting researchers across a wide range of disciplines including economics, social psychology, neurology, anthropology and biology to study why people are generous, how people express their generosity, and the impact of giving on both donors and recipients.

Among the initiative’s publications is a comprehensive review of more than 500 studies on why people give. from Evidence Based Living

Flemish Altruism (Constituent Parts 1993–1996)Image via Wikipedia
 Dr. Harbaugh, professor of neuroeconomics at    , finds that we get pleasurable feelings from both "pure altruism", giving no matter what the source or intent (whether you give becuase it's mandatory, as in tithing), and "warm glow", giving you want to on a voluntary basis.  Both types of giving elicit neural activity in areas linked to reward processing.

Neural responses to taxation and voluntary giving ... [Science. 2007] - PubMed result

He also conducted an experiment  where participants were given 100$; they could keep them and leave or give some money to FoodBank (charity that distributes food to the homeless).

- conditions were such that no-one would know how much they kept or spent, but they’d give the data anonymously to a lab assistant on a USB stick later
- then there were different variations in the amount of the money given that would actually reach the FoodBank [FB], from “given 15-> 45 to FB” to “given 45 -> only 15 to FB”.

 the result was what Harbaugh called the “altruistic supply function”, as of the 80% of  participants who gave some money the pattern was such that they gave less money if it was expensive to give to the FoodBank and more if it was cheap. While this is not selfish behavior, it is still rational.
Yet the question arises: Why do they give anything at all? To check on this, Harbaugh modified the experiment again, this time simply “taxing” the participant 15dollars for the FoodBank. As there is no choice involved, it of course does not allow much in terms of a conventional analysis. Yet Harbaugh overcame this problem by connecting the participants to an iMRI scan to see how the brain reacts to the different conditions.

What he found firstly matched with Tania Singers findings that the areas for self-rewards was active as well when the reward went to others (“warm-glow”), and secondly that these areas were even active (if to a lesser degree) when they did not even make the decision themselves (tax-scenario and “pure altruism”).

The problem in the real world is however that if we act in a large economy, it is easy to help someone if you’re the only one around, but if there’s a thousand other people people around as well, we tend to hope that someone else helps. Harbaugh therefore advocated warm-glow altruism, as although it seems more egoistic it motivates other too to help.