This is why being generous sometimes feels so difficult

A chimpanzee and his presents. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Are humans innately selfish or do we have an inbuilt tendency toward generosity? Researchers have been arguing this for some time.

Now US and Canadian scientists have developed a computational model of how the brain makes altruistic choices and can use it to predict whether a person will be generous in a scenario involving the sacrifice of money.

The researchers say their model shows that the choice to be altruistic depends on how strongly you consider the needs of others relative to your own.

People who tend to think about the needs of others find it easier to be generous compared to those who consider their own.

The study, led by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) scientists and published in the journal Neuron, also helps explain why being generous sometimes feels so difficult.

The Caltech model suggests that generosity and selfishness can both come easy and fast but it depends on the person and the situation.

“We find that what matters is not whether you can exert self-control, but simply how strongly you consider others’ needs relative to your own,” says lead author Cendri Hutcherson.

“If you consider the other person’s needs more, being generous feels easy. If you consider yourself more, generosity requires a lot of effort.”

The research also puts some light on whether the act of behaving generously is rewarding.

In previous work, researchers have observed greater activity in areas of the brain that represent reward value when someone acts generously. From this, they conclude that generosity is inherently rewarding.

“Our model actually suggests that you can get that activity just because of the way these regions construct a decision,” she says. “You would see more activation in reward areas simply because the decision is complex and so requires more processing to make.”

The model is based on brain scans of 51 males as they made decisions.

To play, each person was paired up with a stranger he would never meet and asked whether he would be willing to sacrifice money so that the stranger could get a significantly larger pay-out.

For example, if you lose $25 the other person gets an extra $100. The money used was real.

The brain scans suggested that there are different brain areas representing your interests and those of others.

Most people in the experiment tended to be greedy.

But sometimes even the most selfish made generous decisions. The researchers see these choices as mistakes.

“Our results indicate that people are happier when mistaken generosity doesn’t happen,” Hutcherson says.

“But if we can increase people’s focus on the thoughts and experiences of others, we can decrease those mistakes while increasing charitable giving and making altruism feel a lot easier.”

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