Altruistic tendencies—like being truly happy for others and feeling good about giving money away—are stronger in the second half of life, according to a new study that used questionnaires, brain scans, and real-life scenarios to determine people’s motivations behind certain behaviors.
After age 45, researchers found, people tend to give away more money and score higher on personality tests for altruism. The reward centers in their brains also light up more than those in younger people when they witness money going to charity.
The study, by University of Oregon researchers, aimed to combine insight from psychology, economics, and neuroscience. This multidisciplinary approach, they say, led to converging signs of pure altruism in the brain—and helped rule out less genuine reasons people might do charitable things.
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For example, people give away money for plenty of non-altruistic reasons, the authors wrote, such as showing off to others or basking in the “warm glow” one might feel after doing something good. So the researchers’ goal was to find a sweet spot where altruism is done simply for the joy of seeing others benefit, without expecting personal reward or recognition.
To do that, they gave 80 adults $100 each, and asked them to make real-life decisions about giving the money to various charitable organizations or keeping it for themselves. They also performed functional MRI scans on the participants as they watched money being transferred either to their own accounts or to randomly selected charities. Finally, they performed personality tests on each participant.
The researchers found that for some of the participants, their brains’ reward centers were activated more by watching money being transferred to their own accounts than to charities. This suggested a “self-interested” response, said lead author Ulrich Mayr, Ph.D.
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But others’ reward centers were more active while watching transfers to charities. In general, these people also tended to donate more money when given a choice, and scored higher in “pro-social” traits on their personality tests.
The triangulation of these three findings suggests an underlying “general benevolence,” the authors wrote, rather than altruism for personal gains. And, they found, this trifecta was strongest in people 45 and older.
Besides age, the researchers considered other factors, as well: those who identified as religious were slightly more likely to possess general benevolence, while gender and political leaning did not seem to play a role. Neither did annual income—which indicated that older people weren’t more generous simply because they had more money to spend.
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What older people do have, the authors point out, is a greater trove of life experiences. And these experiences, Mayr said in a press release, “may plant the seeds of pure altruism in people, allowing them to grow into the desire to contribute to the public good.”
The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, replicated the results of a smaller University of Oregon study published in 2007. While these new findings are more robust, the authors wrote, larger studies still are needed to support the group's conclusions—and to have real-life implications for psychologists or policymakers.
"[This research] gives us a deeper look at the people who give to charity and altruistically contribute to society," co-author Sanjay Srivastava, Ph.D., said in the press release. "If as a society we want to strengthen communities and have a world where people look out for each other, we can go back and ask what kinds of policies and social conditions can help people get there."