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
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.
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.Reuse content