Are some people more prone to being generous?

We’ve all heard the saying “sharing is caring”, especially as children. It’s meant to train us not to be selfish and instead learn to give and be kind to others. However is there any truth to this? Is altruism a matter of nature or nurture?

As adults it seems the act of sharing and generosity disappears; people become greedy and focused on themselves.

A new study has developed a computational model of how the brain develops these altruistic choices and the results are somewhat shocking. The model can predict whether someone will be generous depending on the situation, such as when sacrificing money.

The choice to be altruistic relates to how closely you consider others’ needs compared to yours. If you don’t give the other persons feelings or emotions much thought then you’re more likely to focus on your own needs and therefore be less generous. This helps to explain why being generous is so difficult at times. It’s not a matter of self-control to override our greedy tendencies. Rather, generosity depends on the person and context, not innate or nurtured understanding.

This new model helps to explain the confusion behind peoples beliefs of how we make altruistic choices. How strongly do you consider others’ needs when making a decision? Does it even cross your mind? According to this study, if you do consider others, being generous feels easy but if you don’t it requires a lot of effort.

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The study looked at the brain scans of 51 males while they played a modified “Dictator Game”. They were asked whether they would sacrifice different amounts of money so a stranger would receive a pay out. The game involved 180 decisions and the scans suggested that different brain areas represent one’s own versus others’s interests. For instance, people are more likely to give away resources if they already know how their donation will benefit someone else. Meaning, they’re able to put themselves in the other person’s shoes and therefore be more generous.

In the game most people were greedy, although even the most selfish participants were able to act generous at times yet this was seen as a mistake by the researchers. The researchers claim that the benefit for the self was accidentally underweighted and therefore the generous decision was made; it wasn’t a calculated act of altruism. But it does makes us question, could time pressure help others make altruistic choices?

Understanding this altruistic ability could eventually help increase fundraising for certain charities. If we simply focused on the thoughts and experiences of others the act of altruism would be so much easier.


Tell us, do these findings surprise you? Will it change how you interact with others? Do you consider yourself to be a generous person?