Generosity on the Brain

By Annaliese Beery | June 1, 2008 | 0 comments

Humans often help each other out and give to charity, but what drives us to be generous toward complete strangers? Recent research led by Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, demonstrates that the hormone oxytocin can greatly increase generosity in humans, but only when we’re prompted to identify emotionally with another person.

Researchers gave male UCLA students a nasal spray containing either a saline placebo or oxytocin, a hormone that has been shown to increase trust, decrease fear, and promote social attachment.

Brad Aldridge

The students then played a game in which they were assigned the role of either a gift donor or recipient. Donors started with $10 and could share any of that amount with the recipient—a stranger—via a computerized transaction. The recipient then could accept the donation (in which case both participants walked away with their money), or reject it as insufficient (in which case neither party kept anything). 

Before the game started, donors were asked to imagine the lowest offer they would consider accepting—an act of empathy, requiring that they imagine someone else’s point of view.

Students in both the oxytocin and the placebo groups shared more on average than the minimum they said they would accept, but students given oxytocin were 80 percent more generous than students given the placebo.

In a second game, the researchers didn’t prompt the donors to imagine the lowest offer they’d accept, and recipients did not have the opportunity to reject offers. In that case, the donation amounts did not differ between the oxytocin and placebo groups. The researchers conclude that oxytocin boosts generosity only when people have an opportunity to empathize with others.

In their study, published in the journal PLoS One, Zak and his co-authors note that oxytocin may actually enhance one’s ability to feel empathy. The authors cite several experiences that can increase natural oxytocin production, such as positive physical contact and signals of trust from others. “This suggests that a variety of factors we encounter in our daily lives may motivate us to be generous—even with strangers,” they write.

Tracker Pixel for Entry

Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

blog comments powered by Disqus


  • What if Schools Taught Kindness?

    February 1, 2016

    Laura Pinger and Lisa Flook share their lessons from creating a "kindness curriculum" for young students.

  • The Subversive Power of the Kiss

    February 11, 2016

    Just in time for Valentine's Day, a wave of studies suggests that the rise of romantic kissing is linked to the changing roles of women.

  • How to Cultivate Humble Leadership

    February 9, 2016

    One principal shares how she transformed her school culture by recognizing her limitations – and then listening to students and staff.


Greater Good Events

The Greater Good Science Center Summer Institute for Educators 2016
Clark Kerr Campus, UC-Berkeley
Sunday, June 26-Friday, July 1, 2016 OR Friday, July 15-Wednesday July 20, 2016 OR Sunday, July 24-Friday, July 29, 2016

The Greater Good Science Center Summer Institute for Educators 2016

The GGSC’s six-day Summer Institute equips educators with social-emotional learning tools that benefit both students and teachers.


Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!


Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.


Greater Good Resources


Book of the Week

Whistling Vivaldi By Claude M. Steele Steele offers studies and stories that show how stereotypes can affect group members' lives in subtle but powerful ways, especially when it comes to academic performance.

Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.
"Greater Good offers a first-rate service to those who want to track new and important research findings in social and emotional intelligence."  
Daniel Goleman

Best-selling author,
Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence

thnx advertisement