[ExI] LA Times: Give till it helps
pjmanney at gmail.com
Mon Dec 24 22:20:30 UTC 2007
We all know about reciprocal altruism. But now we are increasingly
learning how altruism benefits the brain and quite possibly our
Since that's the case, and we are those most interested in improving
mind and body, wouldn't this be a good time to go to the WTA
fundraising site and donate to the matching grant campaign?
Think of the rush of oxytocin that will course through your body. And
the tax benefits! Ooooh, I can feel them now...!
Your body and brain will be glad you did. :)
>From the Los Angeles Times
Give till it helps
If it's really better to give than receive, is generosity then better
for you? The act itself has a growing list of benefits.
By Karen Ravn
Special to The Times
December 24, 2007
WE'VE pored over catalogs, spent hours online, made umpteen harrowing
treks to the mall.
We've hustled and bustled, been hassled and harried, shopped till we
dropped (and dropped lots of cash too). We're stressed as heck, and
we're not going to take this any more -- until next year.
If giving Christmas presents is so hard, why do people do it?
Evidence is piling up (like those packages under the tree) that human
beings were born to give. Their very physiology makes them do it.
Studies show that when a person gives money to a stranger or a
charity, the "rewards area" of the brain gets busy. It's the same area
that goes to town when the person eats a sugar cookie or finds a
parking place at the mall or receives a gift of money from Ed McMahon.
Not only that, but generous people also seem to live longer and stay
healthier than those "bah humbug" types, according to population
studies. It's even possible (scientists are busy testing this concept
now) that the more Christmas spirit shoppers have, the fewer bugs
they're likely to catch during the holidays.
Gift-giving, in a nutshell, seems to improve people's health and
longevity. It lifts their mood and bolsters their ego. And perhaps
most important of all, it makes people beholden to one another, so
that when their goose is cooked, they have friends to save their skin.
Or so goes the evolutionary theory.
"The most important thing I learned in writing a whole book about
human relationships is 'give more gifts,' " says evolutionary
biologist Jay Phelan, a life sciences academic administrator at UCLA
and co-author of "Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our
A gift doesn't have to be expensive, studies show. It really is the
thought that counts -- well, the thought and the pretty wrapping.
But just try telling that to Joel Waldfogel.
"People are best suited to make choices for themselves," says
Waldfogel, a professor of business and public policy at the Wharton
School at the University of Pennsylvania. The lesson from his own
research? Don't give gifts. Give money.
"How is gift-giving as a way of choosing stuff for me?" he says. "The
answer is -- it's a crummy way."
Giving to live
Quite apart from the risk of receiving a lime-green polyester pant
suit, gift-giving may seem foolish from an evolutionary,
struggle-for-survival perspective. By hoarding resources (cashmere
sweaters, pricey perfume, peppermint bark) instead of giving them to
others you'd probably have more luck passing on your genes.
But survival is also helped by generosity of the
one-good-turn-deserves-another variety, or the
That's called "reciprocal altruism," and it has inspired many a mad
dash to the mall.
"It's a way of buffering yourself from an uncertain future," Phelan
says. "You never know when you might need help. When you have friends,
you're much better off."
Because reciprocal altruism proved valuable for survival purposes,
people evolved to feel a basic inclination to be generous and helpful
-- and to feel good about it, according to several recent studies
For example, a report published in the November issue of the Public
Library of Science's journal, ONE, showed that the inclination to be
generous is influenced by the hormone oxytocin. Give people extra
doses of oxytocin, and they'll be much more generous than they would
In the study, 68 male subjects were randomly assigned to pairs and
then played games in which player A was given $10 and told to offer
some of it to player B. If B accepted A's offer, both of them would
get to keep their shares of the money. But if B rejected the offer,
they were both Scrooged, so to speak.
Clearly, it was in A's self-interest to make the lowest offer he
thought B would accept. But players who had inhaled a dose of oxytocin
offered, on average, 21% more ($4.86) than players who had been given
a placebo ($4.03).
Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter that is naturally
stimulated by such things as touching or feeling trusted, and it has
been shown to facilitate various social interactions, including the
bonding of mother to child.
"I think of oxytocin as social glue," says the study's lead author
Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at
Claremont Graduate University in Claremont. "Oxytocin facilitates
living in groups."
The scientists conducted other experiments and found that oxytocin
doses increased generosity 80%.
A second study, published last year in the Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences, also may have linked oxytocin to cheerful giving.
The research, which investigated charitable giving, found it really
may be better to give than to receive.
Using a brain-scanning technique known as functional magnetic
resonance imaging, researchers led by Dr. Jorge Moll, head of the
Neuroscience Unit-LABS-D'Or Network in Rio de Janeiro observed brain
activity in 19 subjects while they made anonymous decisions to accept
money for themselves or to make a charitable donation.
If subjects always decided in favor of their own monetary
self-interest, they would walk off with $128.
But the amount they would get decreased every time they chose to make
a donation in support of, or opposition to, one of a wide range of
causes (including issues of abortion, the death penalty and nuclear
On average, subjects gave away $51 -- 40% of their possible payment.
When a subject decided to take some money, brain activity increased in
several regions known collectively as the mesolimbic rewards area. But
when a subject decided to donate some money, activity there increased
even more, implying that giving is rewarding.
Donating money also led to increased activity in another part of the
brain known as the subgenual cortex, a region that abounds in
receptors for oxytocin, supporting the notion that giving is an
important social act. Taking money, an act that doesn't especially
lubricate social interactions, left the subgenual cortex unfazed.
In this study and the oxytocin study, generous subjects paid a price
-- leaving with less money than those who gave less money away. But
the studies seem to imply that the rewards of being generous -- up to
a point, at least -- outweighed the cost.
Of course, everyone produces oxytocin and has a subgenual cortex and a
rewards area in the brain. Not surprisingly, "everybody will be
altruistic if it's cheap enough, and nobody will if it costs too
much," says William Harbaugh, professor of economics at the University
of Oregon in Eugene.
And yet clearly, some have more Kris Kringle in them than others. What
determines where each person draws the line?
Harbaugh led a team of researchers to probe people's brains and find
out. Specifically, they wanted to know if they could predict how
altruistic people would be on the basis of activity in the rewards
area of the brain.
In a study published in the June issue of Science, 19 female subjects
were each given a bank account that started with a balance of $100.
The balance went up and down with a series of deposits and
withdrawals, half of which the subjects controlled, and half of which
While this was going on, researchers tracked the subjects' rewards
area activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging.
The scientists found that nine of the subjects showed more activity in
the rewards part of the brain when they received money automatically.
(This group was called the "egoist" group.) The other 10 had more
activity in the rewards center when money was automatically withdrawn
from their accounts and donated to a food bank. (This was the
It was the first time researchers had found that nonvoluntary
"donations" to a cause can increase activity in the rewards area of
the brain, implying that some people may actually like to pay taxes
for causes they believe in.
The subjects' responses to automatic deposits and withdrawals were
strongly related to the choices they made when they had a say over how
the money was allocated. Altruists donated to the food bank almost
twice as often as did egoists -- 58% versus 31% of the time. However,
rewards area activity was greater for voluntary donations than for
automatic ones -- very much as if the study had captured the so-called
"warm glow" effect, the fuzzy, "I'm-a-good-person" feeling that comes
from doing a kind deed.
"Brain activity really does predict how people behave," says Ulrich
Mayr, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and a
co-author of the study.
It's not all in your head
The rewards area of the brain is a little like Santa Claus. It knows
if you've been bad or good, and if you've been good, i.e. if you've
behaved in ways that evolution has determined to be good for you -- it
gives you the gift of feeling happy or full or relaxed.
Of course, the rewards area can be tricked. Not everything that makes
you feel good is good for you. (Think about eating a pound of fudge or
drinking a quart of eggnog.)
But generous behavior may be the real deal. One study, reported in
Psychological Science in 2003, found that over a five-year period,
people who gave support to others were less likely to die than people
The study, conducted by a team led by Stephanie Brown, professor of
internal medicine at the University of Michigan, looked at 423 older
married couples. In interviews from 1987 and 1988, participants were
asked if they had given (or received) instrumental support to (or
from) friends, neighbors and relatives other than their spouses in the
last year and if they had given emotional support to their spouses.
Instrumental support included providing transportation, running
errands, going shopping, doing housework and providing child care.
Emotional support consisted of making their spouses feel loved and
cared for and being willing to listen if their spouses needed to talk.
The researchers then examined the individuals' answers as well as
whether they had died during the course of the study.
Results showed that those who gave instrumental support to others had
a reduced mortality rate during the course of the study compared with
those who hadn't given such support and with those who'd received
support. Giving emotional support to a spouse also reduced mortality
All in all, just as the earlier study suggested that giving money away
can be better than receiving it, this study showed that giving support
to others can be better than receiving it.
This study was one of more than 30 reviewed in a May report by the
Corporation for National and Community Service. The report's main
findings: Volunteers have lower mortality rates, function at a higher
level, physically and cognitively and are less likely to be depressed
in later life than people who don't volunteer.
Older volunteers are likely to receive greater health benefits from
volunteering than younger volunteers, and those who volunteer about
100 hours a year are most likely to receive health benefits from
volunteering. The study also found that mortality risk and heart
disease rates are lower in states with higher volunteer rates.
Studies finding links between altruism and health haven't determined
why altruism is so good for your health, but oxytocin may have a hand
in it, Brown suggests. The hormone is known to lower heart rates and
blood pressure, promote wound-healing and reduce the effects of
Brown is now conducting an experimental study of Christmas shoppers to
see if their attitudes affect how likely they are to get sick over the
Her team of researchers has been scurrying around malls asking
shoppers questions such as: How much do you care about the people
you're shopping for? How good do you feel about the presents you're
buying? How happy do you think recipients will be with your presents?
About a week from now, researchers will call the shoppers back and ask
if they stayed well or got sick since last they met.
The hypothesis: Shoppers who really like the people they're shopping
for and are excited about the wonderful presents they're buying them
will stay healthier than shoppers who really don't know what to get
for people they really don't care that much about.
That is, truly altruistic shoppers will stay healthier than Grinches.
The 'dead weight' theory
If Brown's hypothesis turns out to be true, it may be bad news for the
health of Joel Waldfogel of the Wharton School, a highly respected
economist and very nice man who every December turns into the Grinch
who wrote "The Deadweight Loss of Christmas."
In 1993, Waldfogel was a professor at Yale and the recipient of one
too many preposterous presents. He began taking surveys in his
undergraduate classes and confirmed his suspicions: On average, when
you exclude sentimental value, the value a recipient places on a gift
is less than the gift giver spent on it -- at least 10% less, and
This, in economic terms, represents a "dead-weight loss," or a waste
And because the National Retail Federation predicts that holiday sales
will reach nearly $500 billion this year, that would make the
dead-weight loss of Christmas 2007 almost $50 billion.
Not everyone buys Waldfogel's arguments.
A study finding no dead-weight loss -- finding instead that gifts
create positive value -- was published in 1996 in the American
Economic Review, the same journal in which Waldfogel's paper had
appeared three years before.
The authors cited several possible reasons gifts might create, not
lose, value: A gift could be something the recipient never knew
existed or something frivolous the recipient felt guilty about buying,
or something the recipient wanted an excuse to enjoy -- "It's a gift!"
They also thought Waldfogel's idea of trying to separate out
sentimental value was hopeless (although they attempted to do it in
their study too.)
A couple of years later, two more economists entered the fray. In
their report, they tried to quantify how much people really valued the
gifts they'd been given by forcing them to auction the gifts.
When faced with the prospect of truly giving up a gift, people put a
higher price on it than when asked about it in a survey, the method
used by Waldfogel.
Waldfogel is sticking to his guns. In 2002 and 2005, he published two
more studies in which he continued to find evidence for a dead-weight
loss. He's also found that some gift givers, insecure about their
proficiency in the gift-selection department, are more likely to give
cash gifts than more self-confident givers, despite the stigma
associated with giving plain old unadulterated money.
Next year he plans to go international. Do gift givers in other
countries, he wonders, throw away their money too?
And so the debate rages on, with no peace in sight.
Could gift cards be the answer? Gift cards are sort of like money, but
they're not money. They're sort of like gifts, but such safe gifts.
You can't get the wrong size, wrong color or wrong style.
OK, you can get the wrong store. And gift cards can get lost. And lose
value. And expire. In fact, experts say, nearly $8 billion worth of
gift cards went to waste last year.
Gift cards: The new dead-weight loss of Christmas?
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