The old saying “It’s better to give than to receive” may be truer than you think. A new study suggests that pleasure-related areas in the brain get more active when people decide to donate money to charity. The findings may help explain why some people contribute to the public good, even at a personal cost.
Researchers gave 19 women an online account with $100. The women were told they could keep whatever money remained at the end of the session. They then watched as a computer screen displayed a series of possible money transfers from their accounts to a local food bank. Meanwhile, their brains were scanned with an imaging machine. The scans showed when specific brain regions were activated.
About half of the proposed transfers were voluntary—the women could decide whether to accept or reject the donation. Sometimes the transfers were required, similar to a tax. Occasionally, money was unexpectedly added or taken away from either the woman’s or the charity’s account.
The results showed that 3 very different situations—receiving money, seeing money go to a good cause or deciding to donate money—all activated similar pleasure-related centers deep in the brain. The response was strongest when people volunteered to donate money. This might correspond to the “warm glow” some people get when they donate money to a good cause.
Although voluntary giving activated these pleasure-related brain centers, it didn’t create a financial windfall for the food bank. Participants rejected more than half of the voluntary transfers. Overall, the charity received 10% less money from voluntary donations than from the tax-like mandatory contributions.