How does generosity work and can we encourage it?
For a long time, there has been a notion that humans are innately selfish. That our generous impulses are either foolish or part of a calculated plan to help ourselves.
It makes some sort of sense. Our lizard brains, focused on survival, fighting for scarce resources… All that dog-eat-dog stuff. Economic Darwinism.
I’m not sure those of us who work with generosity buy that, though. I don’t.
I’ve seen too much selfless giving, too much joy in helping others, to believe that selfishness is our natural state.
So when I found an article, Can You Incentivize Generosity? I had to stop and read.
Wouldn’t you want to know if there’s a way to encourage generosity?
The article details the findings in a book by Samuel Bowles, The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens.
Most economists continue to assume that we act in our own best interest. But Bowles (an economist) thinks they don’t correctly understand our motivations.
The article cites several experiments based on incentives. These experiments showed people behaving less altruistically when rewarded for their behavior. In one, a preschool fined parents for being late. They found more parents were late after the fine was put in place. Why? Parents began to see being late as a commodity they could pay for – not rudeness toward the teachers.
In another, young children were spontaneously generous toward other kids. But when they were given a toy as a reward, they helped less.
When we make an economic calculation it stops feeling like generosity.
Bowles says that “motives such as reciprocity, generosity and trust are common, and these preferences may be crowded out by the use of explicit incentives.”
But while incentives can hurt our generous instincts, social norms can spur generosity. Bowles believes positive social norms such as trust and fairness make people more likely to be generous and less likely to be affected by incentives.
But are we wired to be generous?
Another article, also at Greater Good, The Compassionate Instinct, has additional clues.
In other studies, mothers looked at pictures of their babies. Other subjects thought about harm being done to others. In each, the same areas of the brain lit up. The connection is compassion – whether for our own children or for someone who could be hurt.
Research by Emory University neuroscientists James Rilling and Gregory Berns showed that when people were given the chance to help someone, helping triggered activity in the parts of the brain that turn on when we experience pleasure.
Helping makes us feel good – in accord with what we believe to be good behavior, but also on a deeper, hard-wired way.
A study in the journal Neuroscience (article in Live Science here) found that
…the scans of the stingiest participants showed the most activity in the prefrontal cortex, which regulates impulses.
Meanwhile, the most generous subjects showed heightened brain activity in regions linked to recognizing pain and emotion, and to mirroring others’ behavior…
The results showed that temporarily shutting down the prefrontal cortex did wonders for people’s generosity — they were about 50 percent more generous with their money than participants in the control group.
I’m going to make a couple of guesses based on what I know about giving. To me, this underlines the importance of an emotional, not rational appeal. And it makes me happy, because it seems to point to generosity as our instinctive response.
A compassion hormone?
Do you know what oxytocin is? I’m going to borrow the explanation from Psychology Today:
Oxytocin is a powerful hormone and acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. It regulates social interaction and sexual reproduction, playing in role in behaviors from maternal-infant bonding and milk release to empathy, generosity, and orgasm. When we hug or kiss a loved one, oxytocin levels increase; hence, oxytocin is often called “the love hormone.” In fact, the hormone plays a huge role in all pair bonding. The hormone is greatly stimulated during sex, birth, and breastfeeding. Oxytocin is the hormone that underlies trust. It is also an antidote to depressive feelings.
I remember experiencing what oxytocin does to a breastfeeding mom. The hormone floods your system and promotes some strong feelings!
But apparently, behaving in a compassionate way – smiling, being friendly – also causes us to produce more. Being kind creates a reaction that causes us to be even more kind.
That’s great news for humankind and for our work.
But can we support the urge to be generous?
Other studies, cited in Creating Generosity, and performed by Caltech researchers, indicate that “self-oriented values correlated with activity in the ventral stratum, an area linked to basic reward processing. Other-oriented values correlated with activation of the temporoparietal junction, which has been implicated in empathy.”
In other words, if we’re concerned with ourselves, one area of our brain activates. If we are feeling compassionate or empathetic, another area comes alive.
The more we think about another person’s well-being, the more likely we are to be generous. (I love that thought!)
But they also found that we find it easier to be generous when we feel we’re only giving up a little bit to help someone. This makes sense – think of how powerful we find a food bank’s offer: “$5 feeds a family for a week”.
So we may weigh even impulsive generosity – we want to see a lot of good come from a relatively painless gift. A little benefit from a gift that hurts is a much harder lift.
Other researchers say appeals to self-interest sometimes increase and sometimes decrease prosocial behavior. They think it comes down to framing. We tend to behave differently when offered a purchase that will benefit a charity than when we get something in return for a charitable gift.
Think you know which one means more generosity? It’s actually the former. Perhaps the charitable frame of the first situation activates our more generous impulses. The second feels more like a transaction.
Emotion is key
An article in Forbes addressed how charities can encourage generosity:
A compelling story with an emotional trigger alters our brain chemistry, making us more trusting, understanding, and open to ideas,” according to neuroscientist Paul Zak. Zak calls the neurochemical oxytocin the ‘moral molecule,’ because when it’s present oxytocin elicits empathy, trust and motivates people to show kindness to others. In a remarkable series of experiments Zak discovered that higher levels of oxytocin in a person’s bloodstream is associated with significantly higher desire to give to a charitable cause. How do you trigger oxytocin? Real stories of real people.
I’ve made my case for the role emotion plays in our work before. I believe understanding emotion and communicating it are essential if you want to raise money.
Stories are the vehicle for emotion – how we communicate it. And we can tell great stories with words or images. Or ideally, with both.
The Caltech research also points to the importance of a great offer – another critical part of a successful appeal.
(Perhaps someday we’ll develop a chemical to trigger oxytocin when someone opens an envelope. I’m not sure how I feel about that prospect, though. Crosses a line, to me. But note, even imagining the future, I’m still seeing a place for real mail in it!)
The good news about generosity is that it exists.
It’s baked in. But it can be encouraged or discouraged.
So, to inspire generosity:
- Create a strong offer that makes it easy to give
- Spur empathy with stories and images
- Remember that giving decisions are emotional, not rational
Empathy is so important to our world and to our work. I believe it’s powerful.
The more we cultivate, the happier we are – and the better the world is.
Photo by Tim Marshall