Giving to Feel Good: Exploring the Psychology Underlying Charitable Giving

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Why do people give to charities? Is it the tax break, the satisfaction of helping others, or perhaps a combination of factors? The Wall Street Journal recently published an article by Elizabeth Svoboda called “Hard-Wired for Giving,” adopted from her new book What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness (Aug. 31/ Sept. 1, 2013 WSJ Review). With nary a mention of Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3), the author instead focuses on how the human brain is apparently built for generosity.  Fascinating stuff.

What makes humans altruistic? According to a recent scientific study, our brains make pleasurable responses—in the same region that controls cravings for food and sex -- when we decide to donate money to causes that we deem worthy. In addition, the brain area containing receptors for oxytocin (a hormone that promotes social bonding), also becomes strongly active when decisions to donate are made. Our reliance on the benefits of strong interpersonal connections also motivates us to behave unselfishly.

Author Svoboda notes that the scientific study showed varying levels of brain activity among the human subjects when giving to charity. Two groups emerged: “egoists,” who showed less brain activity at the prospect of making a donation, and “altruists,” whose brains showed much more activity. Generally, the higher level of pleasurable brain activity, the more likely giving would result. And some outlier subjects who emerged as “egoists” actively gave more than their activities would predict, which would indicate a true altruism—i.e. giving more to help others than to feel good.

Whatever the motivations, the rewards, the social relationship benefits, and even the pleasurable brain activity, may we all seek meaningful ways to improve our world through worthy causes. And from our law firm’s perspective (not as scientists), may we all enjoy the maximum tax benefits available through our tax exemption laws!