2. Generosity

The Mystery

In 1993 five nuclear power plants in Switzerland produced about 40 percent of their electricity. The country has a relatively clean energy program but nuclear power produces nuclear waste and that waste has to go somewhere. To solve the problem the Swiss government identified two small towns as potential nuclear waste depositories but that presented a greater problem of dealing with the local townspeople. How would they react and how could they be motivated to accept the storage of radioactive waste so close to themselves, their families and their friends?

Two researchers from the University of Zurich decided to approach the problem. They first made a simple proposition and presented it to a small group in a town hall meeting. It read like this: "Suppose that the National Cooperative for the Storage of Radioactive Waste (NAGRA), after completing exploratory drilling, proposed to build the repository for low- and midlevel radioactive waste in your hometown. Federal experts examined this proposition, and the federal parliament decides to build the repository in your community."

Of course no one would like the prospect of having the waste facility so close to his or her homes, how would you vote. The researchers were surprised that 50.8 percent of the group agreed to the proposition and to put themselves at risk. Perhaps they were motivated by social obligation, a feeling of national pride, or just a sense that it was the right thing to do. The other half of the group that was opposed still presented a significant obstacle for the government.

To resolve the problem the researchers tested out what seemed to be a rational solution, a reward. They talked to a new group from the same community and presented them with the same proposition but added: "Moreover, the parliament decides to compensate all residents of the host community with 5,000 francs (about $2,175) per year and per person…. financed by all taxpayers in Switzerland"

We would assume that the $2,175 the Swiss researchers proposed would motivate a higher percentage of the residents to accept the waste facility. But that is not what happened.

When the researchers introduced the financial compensation into the equation, the percentage of people who said they would accept the proposition not only didn't increase - it fell by half. Only 24.6 percent of the people who were presented with the monetary offer agreed to the nuclear dump close to their homes (compared with the 50.8 percent who agreed when no money was offered). Even when the researchers sweetened the deal to $4,350, and again to $6,525, the townspeople were firm in their opposition. Only a single respondent changed his mind when more money was put on the table.

Why did adding a monetary incentive decrease the amount of folks willing to comply with the request. Economist, managers, parents, and even religious leaders have long operated under the assumption that adding a selfish incentive will increase motivation, after all it works for animals. But man and animals were created quite differently. Psychologists are just now beginning to discover that two completely separate motivation forces exist in our brains.

Recently two separate studies, one at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the other at Duke University have been able to pinpoint the brain activity behind this paradox of motivation.

The NIH researchers placed participants in a specially modified MRI machine fitted with a computer monitor and a simple joystick.
They were to play a very simple video game that would yield monetary rewards and punishments. The challenge was to zap a figure that appeared on the screen. But before the figure appeared on the screen the participant would be presented with a symbol that represented the outcome for success or failure.

Circle = +20 cents                                                Square = -20 cents
Circle with a line through it =+ $1                       Square with line = -$1
Circle with two lines = +$5                                  Square with two lines = -$5

Triangle = no reward or punishment

While the participants were playing the game they where shown a running account of their earnings and losses. Meanwhile, the scientist monitored their brain activity. The scientist noticed that every time a circle or a square appeared (that is every time there was money on the line) a particular part of the brain lit up, the nucleus accumbens. When the triangle was shown (no money) this region remained dormant.

The nucleus accumbens is well known as the pleasure center of the brain. It has been traditionally associated with our "wild side". It is the area of the brain that experiences the thrill of sports, drugs, sex and gambling. A drug like cocaine triggers the nucleus accumbens to release dopamine, which creates a feeling of contentment and ecstasy. Addiction is caused when the pleasure center goes into overdrive and the threshold for excitement climbs higher and higher. In this study they discovered that the more money there is on the line the more the pleasure center lights up.

In 2006, a few years after the NIH study, Duke scientist asked subjects to play a similar simple video game in a MRI machine, but
instead of earning money for themselves, the participants were told that the better the scores, the more money would be donated charity.

In the MRI images, the pleasure center remained quiet throughout the game. But a completely different region of the brain, called the posterior superior temporal sulcus, kept lighting up. This is the part of the brain responsible for social interactions, how we perceive others, how we relate and form bonds. We did not know that this part of the brain was also associated with selfless generosity or altruism, the quality of giving out of concern for the welfare of others with no thought of a personal reward.

To make sure that the participants were reacting to altruism and not just to the act of playing the game, they were also scanned while they watched a computer play the game with the same charitable results. They found that the posterior superior temporal sulcus, the "altruism center" was still hard at work feeling pleasure from the computers success.

We now know that the pleasure from getting and the pleasure from giving come from two completely different areas of the brain, but what is even more remarkable is they cannot function at the same time. Either the pleasure center or the altruism center is in control.

If the two brain centers functioned at the same time then in the Swiss survey you would expect a compounding effect, that is, the percentage of people who agreed to host the nuclear dump would have grown with the increase of a monetary reward. But that didn't happen. When no money was offered the altruism center took charge, as people weighed the danger against the opportunity to help their country. When a physical reward was introduced the pleasure center took over, the choice was between the danger and the easy money. There simply was not enough of a reward to excite the pleasure center; it just didn't feel good enough.

It is as if we have two "engines" running in our brains that will not operate at the same time. We have seen that the two different engines run on two different fuels and also need different amounts of fuel to fire up. It does not take much to fire up the altruism center, all you need is a sense that you are helping someone or making a positive impact. The pleasure center is never fully satisfied and seems to need a lot more fuel and more often. It is as if it were a cup with a hole in the bottom, you just can't keep it full.

Giving has been linked to the release of oxytocin, a hormone (also released during sex and breast feeding) that induces feelings of warmth, euphoria, and connection to others. In laboratory studies, Paul Zak, the director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, has found that a dose of oxytocin will cause people to give more generously and to feel more empathy towards others, with “symptoms” lasting up to two hours. And those people on an “oxytocin high” can potentially jumpstart a “virtuous circle, where one person’s generous behavior triggers another’s,” says Zak.

The lesson from this science is simple, “there is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving”.

You need to be aware of a very important obstacle to using generosity to artfully create true happiness within yourself. That obstacle is the “rule of reciprocity” giving or receiving a gift with a sense of obligation or of gaining a future reward.  It is the fuel of giving for Christmas and birthdays. It is the reason your boss gives you a bonus.  If the act of generosity is connected to selfish motivation it simply is not a true gift and will not cultivate true happiness.

Make it point each day to do something or give something that the receiver cannot repay. It can be a simple act of helping a stranger, or purchasing a gift and sending it anonymously.

Think of someone who has hurt you and give them the gift of forgiveness followed by a sincere act of kindness.

Think of someone who you may have hurt and give them the gift of an apology followed with a sincere act of kindness.

Give to charity.

Food for Thoughts
  • Why does the happiness from giving unselfishly last longer and easier to remember?
  • Is is possible to give unselfishly with our feelings?
  • When was the last time you received a gift without attachments?