What Generous People’s Brains Do Differently


New research from the emerging field of neuroeconomics suggests that being generous is not as tough as some people think. But even so, it is pretty rare.

In an article at Harvard Business Review, Nicole Torres looks at this research which examines how and why some people make giving look effortless while others face more of a struggle when it comes to putting others first.

Scientists at CalTech and Harvard studied what actually happens in the brain when people make an altruistic choice—one that benefits another at a cost to themselves. They found that the decision to give or take simply comes down to how much importance you attach to your interests versus someone else’s. So if you’re the type of person who considers other people’s needs as much as your own, self-sacrificing tends to be automatic. If you typically place more value on yourself, then giving feels more onerous.

Participants in the study varied a lot in how much importance they attached to themselves versus others, but the researchers weren’t able to say where this disposition comes from—whether it’s education and upbringing, or how our brains are wired. “My guess is that it’s pretty modifiable,” according to Cendri Hutcherson, who led the work and is the director of the Toronto Decision Neuroscience Laboratory. “So the question we want to answer is how do we tap into those mechanisms to make people just a little bit more willing to give?”

The results of the experiment suggest that being generous could be made easier simply by taking the time to focus on how someone else might feel, and not just consider how the decision impacts the individual making the decision.

I think that being generous is a characteristic that could be taught, and that it is not limited to just certain people whose brains are wired a certain way. I think by being exposed to generous people and seeing the positive outcomes associated with being generous, one can learn to be generous.

Perhaps that can be the next research study. Offer “generosity training” to one group of participants, and no training at all to another, and then when the training is complete, have the two groups participate in the Dictator Game to see if there are differences between the two groups. (This is the same game that was used in the study noted above).

If there is a significant difference, then perhaps generosity training could be something that is implemented into school curriculums and career development programs.

I know I would certainly benefit from learning how to be more generous, and imagine the overall benefit to society if we collectively became more generous.


3 thoughts on “What Generous People’s Brains Do Differently

  1. Jim, you always find interesting and thought-provoking stuff to share. Here are a few ideas that might lead to more generosity:
    1) Practice. Keep doing it until it’s second nature.
    2) Look for opportunities to be generous rather than waiting until they present themselves. That way, the decision is already made.
    3) Surround yourself with generous people, and observe how they do it. Ask them whether it comes naturally or they had to cultivate it. If the latter, ask how they became generous intentionally.
    4) Be humble. Don’t look for praise or other rewards for being generous. (Bonus points: Be anonymous if you can.)
    5) Count your blessings. Recall all the times people have been generous with you. In my case, so much grace and generosity have come my way (from God and other people), I can’t help but give it back.
    Just some thoughts. I love this topic.

      1. I’m no expert, but for some reason those thoughts came to mind as I read your post. I had a college roommate who was generous to all. I never heard her say an unkind word to or about anyone. Wish I could say the same for myself, but I work at doing better!

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