Tag Archives: generosity

Generosity may be contagious, new study suggests

A new study carried on a hunter-gatherer society in Tanzania gives a surprising insight into why people help each other — it’s “contagious”.

At first glance, being generous doesn’t really make much sense. From an evolutionary standpoint, it seems like being selfish would be the best idea. But for a social creature like Homo sapiens, things are rarely simple, and recent studies suggest that generous people are happier and fare better in society. However, that still doesn’t explain why we give.

This is where the new study comes in. Researchers found that the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer people, are generally willing to share — but that doesn’t mean they always do. In fact, whether they are willing to share something or not depends not so much on the individual, but rather on the group they were living with at the time.

“We found that year after year, willingness to share with others clustered within residence groups or what we call ‘camps,'” says lead author Coren Apicella of the University of Pennsylvania. “People were living with other people who were similar to them in levels of generosity.”

In other words, people were more generous when they were in the company of other generous people — not the other way around.

“We also found individual willingness to share changed from year to year to match their current campmates and found no evidence that people preferred living with more cooperative people,” adds Kristopher Smith, the study’s first author. Importantly, those trends persisted even as the Hadza people changed campmates about every couple of months.

The Hadza, or Hadzabe, are an indigenous ethnic group in north-central Tanzania, near the Serengeti plateau. There are, as of 2015, between 1,200 and 1,300 Hadza people living in Tanzania, although the increasing impact of tourism and encroaching pastoralists pose serious threats to the continuation of their traditional way of life.

Studies like this are particularly important because they are carried out on a society that greatly resembles a subsistence lifestyle similar to that occurring throughout most of human evolution. Furthermore, since they gain most of their calories through hunting and plant gathering, which are both fairly scarce resources, sharing is really generous — not something to be treated lightly.

“The Hadza are one of the last populations left on the planet who live a similar lifestyle to how our ancestors lived for millions of years,” says co-author Ibrahim Mabulla. “They offer insight into how cooperation evolved.”

“Food is unreliable and people often worry about there being enough food to feed themselves and their families,” Apicella says. “To counteract this, the Hadza share their food with their campmates. High levels of cooperation help to ensure survival in this unpredictable setting.”

The methodology of the study was almost just as intriguing as the study itself. Obviously, it’s not easy to study this type of population — especially since researchers need to pay special attention not to disturb them in any significant way. So to test their theories out, researchers visited 56 camps in Tanzania over the course of six years.

During the visits, nearly 400 Hadza adults of all ages were asked to play a public goods game. The game is normally played by asking people to decide whether they share money with the group or keep it for themselves — but since that wouldn’t have made much sense here, the money was substituted for straws of honey, the Hadza’s favorite food.

In the game, each person starts out with four straws. If they decide to keep them, they keep them. But if they share them with the group, the number of straws get tripled. If everyone shares, everyone wins — however, there’s also an incentive to keep the straws for yourself.

The data showed that Hadza individuals living in certain camps were consistently more generous than others were. Moreover, individuals behaved differently over time, modifying their behavior to match the norms of the camp they were currently living in.

“You have some camps in which everyone is contributing and some where people are contributing very little,” Smith says. “In a random population, you’d expect all the camps to contribute similar amounts.”

“We were surprised to find that people do not have a stable tendency to cooperate and are instead influenced by those around them,” Apicella says. “Our results show that there is no such thing as good guys and bad guys,” challenging a swath of evolutionary models for explaining cooperation that assume dispositional types: cooperators and defectors.

Lastly, this also shows the fluid nature of human collaboration — it can change over time, and it can be influenced.

So if you feel like the people around you are selfish and self-centered, the best way to change that is to start being more generous yourself — who knows, you might be giving them the generosity contagion.

Journal Reference: Current Biology, Smith et al.: “Hunter-Gatherers Maintain Assortativity in Cooperation despite High Levels of Residential Change and Mixing” https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(18)30994-1


Bonobo food-sharing points to evolutionary origin of human generosity


Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Cooperation is the bedrock of human social behavior and arguably the main reason why our species has come to dominate this planet. It’s through forming very tight-knit communities and sharing — not just of resources but knowledge, too — that humans have managed to overcome their individual weaknesses and vulnerabilities. But where did this striking behavior originate? Evolutionary clues may lie in our closest relatives, the bonobos, which seem to be eager to share food with peers even when they could have easily kept it for themselves. Tool-sharing, however, is not part of their generosity repertoire.

What makes a generous ape?

Our species split from the lineage common to chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus) roughly seven million years ago. Chimps and bonobos split from a common ancestor which they had shared two million years ago.

To the untrained eye, bonobos and chimps are hard to tell apart. However, the two differ in morphology, behavior, and perhaps even emotions and cognition in important ways.

Bonobos live in female-dominant social groups where the females form tight bonds against males through same-sex socio-sexual contact, an approach that some scientists believe is what limits aggression. Sex plays a vital role in bonobo society — the animals do not form permanent partnerships and making love is used both as a greeting and to resolve conflicts. The typical bonobo has red lips, neat little ears, and a distinctive hairdo. In the wild, they have not been seen to cooperatively hunt, use tools, and aggression is quite uncommon (the completely peaceful, hippie bonobo is a myth).

Chimps live in male-dominant groups, where intense — sometimes lethal — aggression is common. Chimps are so aggressive and competitive that they will even eat the infants of other chimpanzee groups. Unlike bonobos, chimps hunt in groups and use tools. Studies have shown that chimps also exhibit some features of generosity. In one experiment, chimps handed over a tool that was out of reach to another chimp and who was clearly requiring it.

But what about bonobos?

Christopher Krupenye, a primate behavior researcher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, repeated the experiment with bonobos that live in the Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two individuals were placed in cages side by side with a narrow window in between. One individual had several palm nuts while the other individual had several rocks at his disposal — that are perfect for cracking palm nuts.

The bonobos showed very little intent in sharing the rocks but consistently shared the nuts (18% of the trials) even though they could have kept them for themselves with no repercussions. Because there was no pressure to share their nuts, the bonobos seem to have behaved this way out of generosity.

In the wild, chimps also sometimes share food, but only on certain occasions such as following a big hunt or to placate pestering beggars.

In most species, food sharing happens between parent and infant. But, when it comes to food, the findings show that bonobos are uniquely prosocial among non-human primates.

It’s not clear why the bonobos wouldn’t share tools. What’s truly striking is that the behavior is almost completely opposite of chimps, who would share tools but not food.

Perhaps the separate evolutionary paths that bonobos and chimps each took may have shaped their unique takes on generosity. Alternatively, since bonobos don’t really use tools, they may fail to grasp the tool’s utility to the other person. Bonobos, who live in forests where food is abundant, have never been observed to crack nuts with a rock or fish termites with a stick as chimps often do. 

But although their generosity isn’t fully rounded, the study suggests that bonobos share many traits with humans in this respect. Over millions of years, our lineage may have encouraged more sharing, leading to more versatile generosity. For instance, human children as young as five understand that generosity scores them social points among their group and are remarkably willing to do so (although some parents reading this article may beg to differ).

The findings appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Scientists find brain’s generosity center

Neuroscientists have zoomed into the part of the brain responsible for one of humanity’s purest emotions: generosity.

Photo by digital Battuta.

It’s pretty much accepted in sociology that generosity is a beneficial behavior. Ironically, looking away from your best interest and helping someone else can work out to your advantage in the long run – it can make you more desirable and can do wonders for your brain. Scientists wanted to see where exactly the generosity is ‘located’ in your brain, looking at positive empathy and other psychosocial behaviors.

Dr Patricia Lockwood from Oxford University, who led the study, said:

‘Prosocial behaviours are social behaviours that benefit other people. They are a fundamental aspect of human interactions, essential for social bonding and cohesion, but very little is currently known about how and why people do things to help others.’

She and her team had an fMRI look at volunteers’ brain while they were deciding on giving rewards to other volunteers. Interestingly, they found that generosity can also be a learned behavior, though it takes a bit longer to learn it than those which benefit yourself. In the end, they were able to identify a particular brain area involved in giving the best result for other people.

‘A specific part of the brain called the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex was the only part of the brain that was activated when learning to help other people. Put another way, the subgenual anterior cingulate seems to be especially tuned to benefiting other people.

‘However, this region of the brain was not equally active in every person. People who rated themselves as having higher levels of empathy learnt to benefit others faster than those who reported having lower levels of empathy. They also showed increased signalling in their subgenual anterior cingulate cortex when benefitting others.’

As it turns out, not everyone is generous in the same way. The ability to understand other people’s emotions and feelings are a key part of generosity, but the link is complex and difficult to understand for now.

The immediate application for this study would be understanding psychopathy or other anti- or asocial behaviors. Psychopathy is generally characterized by persistent antisocial behavior and impaired or non-existent empathy. The consequence is often a bold and egotistical behavior. In the log run, however, this could help us understand what motivates people to behave the way they do, and how we can encourage members of society to be more generous.

Journal Reference: Patricia L. Lockwood, Matthew A. J. Apps, Vincent Valton, Essi Viding, and Jonathan P. Roiser. Neurocomputational mechanisms of prosocial learning and links to empathy. PNAS, 2016 DOI:10.1073/pnas.1603198113

Gratitude, not ‘Gimme!’, makes you happier

Materialistic people are more likely to be depressed and unsatisfied, partly because they are not grateful enough for the things they have, according to a study by Baylor University researchers.

Generosity and happiness have been linked many times, and most psychologists believe that generally speaking, there is a tight connection between the two. But things go even further than that – generosity has also been linked with evolutionary success. It’s not something entirely proven and some researchers still have their doubts, but the evidence continues to pile up.

“Gratitude is a positive mood. It’s about other people,” said study lead author Jo-Ann Tsang, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Previous research that we and others have done finds that people are motivated to help people that help them — and to help others as well. We’re social creatures, and so focusing on others in a positive way is good for our health.”

However, most people tend to be “me-centered” – they focus on their own, personal needs, and they also focus more on what they don’t have – what they want, then what they do have.

“Our ability to adapt to new situations may help explain why ‘more stuff’ doesn’t make us any happier,” said study co-author, James Roberts, Ph.D., holder of The Ben H. Williams Professorship in Marketing in Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business.

Indeed, this mentality almost never leads to happiness. The thing is, it’s not that you want a certain thing – it’s that you want ‘more’. That ‘more’ takes shape in a certain object, but after you acquire it, you simply one-up it and want something else, never really fulfilling all your desires.

“As we amass more and more possessions, we don’t get any happier we simply raise our reference point,” he said. “That new 2,500-square-foot house becomes the baseline for your desires for an even bigger house. It’s called the Treadmill of Consumption. We continue to purchase more and more stuff but we don’t get any closer to happiness, we simply speed up the treadmill.”

Study results were based on surveys – an analysis of 246 members of the department of marketing in a mid-sized private university in the southwestern United States, with an average age of 21. The surveys used a 15-item scale of materialism.

Greek Philosopher Epicurous. This man knew it all along, 2000 years ago.

Previous research has already shown that materialists, while more likely to achieve material goals, are less satisfied overall with their lives, and more likely to have unsuccessful relationships, and are less involved in the community. Meanwhile, on the other side of coin, generous, grateful people fair better in all those aspects.

Interestingly enough, the study quotes ancient Greek philosopher Epicurous:

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

In the end, you could say that it took 2.000 year and a lot of research to prove that… he was right.

Source: Baylor University.

If you want to be happier, spend more money on others

A new research paper written by psychologists Elizabeth Dunn and Lara Aknin, along with Michael Norton of Harvard Business School shows that there’s a clear and simple way to be more happy in life – spending more money on others.

The notion of generosity has been greatly debated among scientists lately – and it’s not just psychologists that are chipping in – geneticists and anthropologists are also hot on the subject. In 2007, Jerusalem researchers published a challenging paper which claimed that generosity might be, at least in part, genetic. Three years later, a joint team of geneticists and a psychologist from Bonn University found a ‘generosity gene‘ – showing that people who carry the gene are much more likely to be generous than those without it. Since then, more and more papers were published on generosity – people wanted to see if it is a natural or developed trait, and perhaps more importantly, if it is somehow important for happiness and success. While there is still no consensus around, it seems safe to say that there is a strong underlying connection between generosity and happiness.


photo credit: OllieD

Now, writing in the Journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, the Harvard researchers report that the benefits of helping others “are evident in givers old and young in countries around the world, and extend to not only subjective well-being, but also objective health.” According to their results, this stands for people of all ages and statuses, race and culture.

They first talked about one of their previous studies, in which participants were given either $5 or $20 to buy something for themselves or for somebody else. Those who bought stuff for other people reported significantly higher moods and feeling better throughout the day.

“That evening, people who had been assigned to spend the money on someone else reported happier moods over the course of the day than did those people assigned to spend the money on themselves,” they report.

They also pointed to another study, which showed that even toddlers exhibit more happiness when sharing: babies who gave away goldfish crackers to a puppet character were more happy compared to when they received the snacks themselves.

So how can this be explained?

Apparently, the answer lies in the so-called self-determination theory. Among other things, this states that human well-being depends upon the satisfaction of three basic needs: relatedness, competence, and autonomy. In some cases, generosity  can fulfill all three: you feel more close and related to someone when you help them out, it gives you a sense of competence, as well as a sense of autonomy – the fact that you’re able to help.

While not groundbreaking, this study puts even more substance in the link between generosity and happiness. As a matter of fact, researchers believe that charities and other such organizations can use this to their benefit – the more they maximize the emotional benefits of giving money to them, the more people would donate. In a strange and counter intuitive way… you’re basically buying happiness.

The World’s happiest countries: Europe takes 8 out of first 10 places

The United Nations General Assembly has just released its second annual World Happiness Report, measuring happiness and well-being in countries around the world in an attempt to help guide public policy; it has been consistently shown that happiness plays an important role in society – happy people live longer, have more productive lives, earn higher wages, and in general, are better citizens.

The happiest countries in the world

Before we go into how this top was created and what factors were taken into consideration, here’s the results: Denmark topped the list of the happiest nations, followed by Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Sweden. The six main factors taken into consideration were GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity. Yep, generosity goes a long way to being happy.


Calculating happiness

Now, the word ‘happiness‘ is not taken lightly, especially as it has an inherent vagueness with it. Happines is, as the report puts it, ‘an aspiration of every human being’, and arguably the best indicator of social progress. America’s founding fathers declared an inalienable right to pursue happiness, something which lies at the very core of every human. But how do you even measure happiness?

First of all, you have to make the disctinction between two different instances of happiness – an emotion (as in ‘I am happy with how things went yesterday’), and a general state of life satisfaction (‘I am happy with my life right now’).

Interestingly enough, the single most important factor of unhappiness across the world was mental illnesses – something grossly ignored by policy makers. Now, of course, mental illnesses are terrible and affect a significant part of the population, but it comes as quite a shock (to me at least) that this factor is more important than poverty or freedom to make choices. By far the most common forms of mental illness are depression and anxiety disorders, and according to the report, around 10% of the global population is affected at any given time. Cost effective treatments exist almost everywhere across the world, but schools and workplacess tend to ignore these problems, even though evidence-based treatments can have low or zero net cost.


In conclusion, there is now a rising worldwide demand that policy be more closely aligned with what really matters to people as they themselves characterize their lives. The fact that rich, European countries top the chart is definitely a good indicator, but the fact that US comes at 17, behind Mexico, the United Arab Emirates and Costa Rica shows that it’s not all about the money.

Read the full report HERE.

Generosity linked with happiness and evolutionary success

With new insights derived from Game Theory, University of Pennsylvania biologists offer a mathematically based explanation for why cooperation and generosity have evolved in nature.


Their work relied on the work of John Nash, who proposed the famous Nash equilibrium and advanced Game Theory in the 1950, as well as those of computational biologist William Press and physicist-mathematician Freeman Dyson, who last year identified a new class of strategies for succeeding in the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma. The work was conducted by postdoctoral researcher Alexander J. Stewart and associate professor Joshua B. Plotkin, both of Penn’s Department of Biology in the School of Arts and Sciences.

They examined the outcome of the Prisoner’s Dilemma as played repeatedly by a large, evolving population of players. In case you don’t know, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is a typical problem, in which two prisoners have two possibilities – to cooperate, or not cooperate. Each possibility brings them a reward, let’s say:

– if one of them (A) confesses, and the other one (B), doesn’t, A will be set free and B will serve 20 years in prison; the same goes for the opposite.
– if none of them confess, both of them spend 1 year in prison.
– if both confess, they both spend 5 years in prison.

Their possibilities would look like this:

So the best option here would be to cooperate, and both remain silent. But since they have no means of communicating with each other, from a game point of view (game as in a strategic interaction between individuals), they will always confess if they just play one time, and each will spend 5 years in prison.

While other researchers have already shown that cooperative strategies can be successful in such a scenario, Stewart and Plotkin offer mathematical proof that the only strategies that are successful in the long run are the generous ones.

“Ever since Darwin,” Plotkin said, “biologists have been puzzled about why there is so much apparent cooperation, and even flat-out generosity and altruism, in nature. The literature on game theory has worked to explain why generosity arises. Our paper provides such an explanation for why we see so much generosity in front of us.”

If you play the Prisonner’s Dilemma not once, but several times, you’ll find some rather interesting results – but there were no clear strategies for playing it, until 2012, when Press and Dyson “shocked the world of game theory, by identifying a group of strategies which can be used to play this game. To simplify it – all you have to do is relate the score of one player to that of the other, linearly.

The biologists relied on this work and showed that players tend to cooperate with their opponents, as long as they don’t suffer more than their opponents in the long term.

“Our paper shows that no selfish strategies will succeed in evolution,” Plotkin said. “The only strategies that are evolutionarily robust are generous ones.”

This discovery, as abstract as it may seem, helps explain why generosity exists in nature, and furthermore, is coherent with other studies, which claimed that humans are naturally inclined towards generosity.

“When people act generously they feel it is almost instinctual, and indeed a large literature in evolutionary psychology shows that people derive happiness from being generous,” Plotkin said. “It’s not just in humans. Of course social insects behave this way, but even bacteria and viruses share gene products and behave in ways that can’t be described as anything but generous.”

“We find that in evolution, a population that encourages cooperation does well,” Stewart concluded. “To maintain cooperation over the long term, it is best to be generous.”

Journal Reference: University of Pennsylvania (2013, September 2).

‘Ruthlessness gene’ discovered

generosityRecently, it seems there’s a gene for everything, from generosity to ruthlesness. That still doesn’t mean that you can blame everything on your genes, but it may go to show the fact that even some of the world’s most cruelest dictators may owe their behaviour partly to their genes, at least according to a study that claims to have found a genetic link to ruthlessness.

The study was conducted by scientists from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who found a link between a gene called AVPR1a and ruthless behaviour in an economic exercise called the ‘Dictator Game’. In this game you can act like a money-grabbing dictators or more selflessly. They still haven’t found the exact mechanism which triggers this gene, but the results were conclusive.

To reach these results, they tested DNA samples from more than 200 student volunteers, before asking the students to play the dictator game, but they weren’t told the name of the game because they could have been influenced. They were then divided into two groups: the ‘dictators’ and ‘receivers’ (called ‘A’ and ‘B’ to the participants). The dictators were given 50 shekels (worth about US$14) and were told that they can share them with a receiver, or just keep them to themselves.

18% of all dictators kept all of the money, while about a third of them shared half of the sum. Just 6% gave the whole lot away. Scientists noted that there was no difference in the behaviour of male and female students, but there was a link to the length of the AVPR1a gene: people were more likely to behave selfishly the shorter their version of this gene.