Giving money away makes you feel better - especially if you're a woman

Economists have looked inside the heads of people prepared to give money to a good cause and found the warm glow of true altruism really does exist, at least in women.

People who volunteer to donate money to charity feel much better about giving it away in this way than they do when paying their taxes, shows a study in which a sophisticated brain-scanner analyses the biological basis of spending money.

Two economists and a cognitive psychologist studied how different regions of the brain reacted when female volunteers were given money to spend - or not to spend - on a food aid project and on government taxes.

They found that as the volunteers watched the financial transactions on a computer screen, deep-seated parts of the brain associated with the pleasure of eating began to be stimulated. Nerve cells in the caudate nucleus and the nucleus accumbens normally fire when someone eats a favourite food such as a chocolate or a sweet but this time they became excited when the money went to a food charity, but less so when it went to a government tax office.

"The surprising element for us was that in a situation in which your money is simply given to others - where you do not have a free choice - you still get reward-centre activity," said Professor Ulrich Mayr, a psychologist at the University of Oregon. "I don't think most economists would have suspected that. It reinforces the idea that there is true altruism, where it's all about how well the common good is doing. I've heard people claim they don't mind paying taxes, if it's for a good cause; here we showed that you can actually see this going on inside the brain, and even measure it."

The research, published in the journal Science, centred on 19 women who were each given $100 to "spend" on computer transactions while they were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imager, which measures brain activity in real time.

None of the women was aware of what the others were doing and everyone was given a degree of anonymity so that the act of giving was not constrained by the thought of what others may think of them.

Professor William Harbaugh, an economist at Oregon and a member of the US National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said the study provided an unprecedented opportunity to see what people really thought about giving money to different causes.

"To economists, the surprising thing about this study is that we actually see people getting rewards as they give up money. Neural firing in this fundamental, primitive part of the brain is larger when your money goes to a non-profit charity to help other people," Professor Harbaugh said. "On top of that, people experience more brain activation when they give voluntarily, even though everything here is anonymous. That's a very surprising result, and an optimistic one."

The researchers warned that society could not rely on people to give voluntarily to good causes because some took a "free ride" on the charitable donations of others.

"Taxes aren't all bad," Professor Mayr said. "Paying taxes can make citizens happy. People are, to varying degrees, pure altruists. On top of that ,they like the warm glow they get from charitable giving. Until now we couldn't trace that in the brain," .

The women in the study whose brains responded the most when giving to charity rather than keeping it for themselves were called true altruists. "The others are egoists," the professor added. "Based on what we saw in the experiments, we can use this classification to predict how much people are willing to give when the choice is theirs."

Hollywood tales of altruism

About Schmidt

Retired middle-American Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) gives belated meaning to his life by sponsoring a Tanzanian boy, Ndugu.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

Robin of Locksley (Kevin Costner) and his men rebel against the grasping King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham's tyrannical reign by robbing the rich and giving to the poor.

It's A Wonderful Life

An angel recounts the deeds of suicidal George Bailey (James Stewart), which include lending money to avert a financial crisis in his town.


The spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come help miser Ebenezer Scrooge (Albert Finney) rediscover his generous side, and buy Christmas dinner for the Cratchits.

Brewster's Millions

Monty Brewster (Richard Pryor) splashes $30m on charities and pointless but well-paid jobs for his friends (among other things) so he can claim a $300m inheritance.

Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features playground gun massacre
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations should be regarded as an offensive act
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Morrissey pictured in 2013
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Hydraulic Power Pack Design Engineer

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I recruit for contract mechanical design...

SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

SCO Supervisor Electrical

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client based in the Midlands is looki...

Ecommerce Executive

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Ecommerce Executive Working with an...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices