As we continue our week on philanthropy, commentator and author Jonah Lehrer takes a look at how we decide to give to others. He finds it has a lot to do with emotional response, and what our brains can handle.
Jonah Lehrer: The first thing to note about giving away money is that it feels really good. For instance, several brain scanning experiments demonstrate that donating to a worthy cause leads to activation in the dopamine reward pathway. It’s the same part of the brain that’s turned on when we have sex, or eat a slice of chocolate cake. In fact, there is typically more “reward-related” activity when we donate money than we receive an equivalent amount. Giving is literally better than getting, at least from the perspective of the brain.
But this generosity comes with a catch. Yes, we have altruistic instincts. Still, these instincts come with some real blind spots.
Consider the work of Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon. He told undergraduates about a starving child named Rokia — she lived in a crumbling refugee camp in Africa. His students acted with impressive generosity. They saw her emaciated body and haunting brown eyes and they donated, on average, about $2.50 to Save the Children.
However, when a second group of students were provided with a list of statistics about starvation throughout Africa — like the fact that more than five million children are malnourished — the average donation was 50 percent lower.
At first glance, this makes no sense. We should give away more money when we are informed about the true scope of the problem, not less.
Why do we do this? The depressing statistics leave us cold, even when they are truly terrible. That’s because our emotions can’t comprehend suffering on such a massive scale. This is why we are riveted when one child falls down a well, but turn a blind eye to the millions of people who die every year for lack of clean water. And yet, the good news is that we’re still wired to care about each other. We feel pleasure when someone else feels better.
So give away some money. It will make you feel good. And maybe give a little extra to that cause that doesn’t make you feel anything at all.