WHY SO STINGY? THE NEUROSCIENCE OF GENEROSITY

  • Author: Lucy Bloom
  • Sydney NSW, Australia
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Generosity is an interesting beast. As a charity CEO, I have seen it expressed in many different ways. The best kind of generosity comes with warmth and good old NSA – no strings attached. This kind of generosity is glorious to witness and is the backbone of charity work all over the world. The worst kind smacks you over the head with their husband’s cheque book.

I wrote a whole chapter about kindness and another on charity in my latest book, but I have continued to wonder about the ‘why’ of generosity. Why do some people give with nothing expected in return, even when they don’t have much themselves? Why do others use it to wield control and command kudos?

So I do what I always do when I don’t understand why people behave the way they do and I consult the neuroscientific research.

The origins of human generosity go back to when knuckle-draggers evolved into hunter-gatherers. Survival of the species relied on a herd mentality of care where older, fitter humans helped younger, slower, cuter ones. Those who didn’t participate in sharing or self-sacrifice for the herd were removed by natural selection. I wish stingy bastards in 2019 were the same: removed by natural selection.

Nature and nurture

According to science, humans are a combination of nature and nurture when it comes to generosity. The brain rewards you with a shot of feel-good dopamine when you are generous. That delicious hormone literally sizzles through your bloodstream when you take your imaginary generosity gland for a whirl. It is a biological boomerang: give to someone who needs it and the joy will bounce right back at you as a warm fuzzy feeling of reward and delight.

Humans employ two things when they are assessing whether to be generous: logic and empathy. The distraction of the decision-making part of the brain causes people to be more generous. Logic introduces an assessment of benefit and loss for giver and receiver. If the giver sees they can make a difference to the receiver without any significant loss to themselves, we have a winner in the logical generosity department!

Why so stingy?

So what makes a stingy bastard? Or worse, someone who is generous for all the wrong reasons. It seems to be the work of the nature/nurture/values trifecta. All three of which are done and dusted by the time humans are young adults. Meet an older person who lacks generosity and you really can’t convince them to repave their neural tendencies and nurtured behaviours with values of generosity and welfare. Unless you can appeal to their ego.

If you are born with less neural empathy (nature) than the next guy, you will be less likely to give. But that part of your brain is not fully developed until humans are 30. This explains why teenagers can be such breathtakingly selfish creatures. Teen brains lack neural empathy.

 

Article written by LUCY BLOOM and subscribe to our Podcast Channel

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