Kindness activates the brain’s reward network

Psychologists from the University of Sussex have confirmed that “the feeling of a warm energy of kindness” is real when we do something for others without expecting anything in return. Here’s how kindness activates the brain’s reward network.

The scientists analyzed 36 existing studies involving 1,150 participants making kind decisions whose brains were scanned with fMRI over a 10-year period. The study was published in NeuroImage.

For the first time, scientists have separated the analysis of what happens in the brain when people act out of genuine altruism (when there is no gain). And when they act with strategic benevolence (when there is an expectation of some reward).

Many studies have shown that generosity activates the brain’s reward network. The new study separated the effects of the two kinds of kindness, altruistic and strategic.

Scientists have discovered that the reward areas of the brain become more active. That is, they use more oxygen, when people act with strategic kindness. That is, when an opportunity for reciprocation is created.

Acts of altruism, without thoughts of personal gain, also activate reward areas of the brain. And in addition some other areas of the brain were more active during altruistic generosity. Indicating that there is something unique about it.

Dr. Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, the director of the Social Decision Laboratory at the University of Sussex who led the research, said there was a difference in the case of self-interest versus the “warm energy of altruism”.

Deciding to do good deeds gives us joy

The decision to donate resources is a cornerstone of any cooperative society. We know that people can choose to be nice and kind because they like to feel like they are “good people”. But also that people can choose to be kind when they think there might be something “in it” e.g. , a better reward.

Some people might say that the “why” doesn’t matter. However, what motivates us to be kind and good is important.

If governments can understand why people might give something when there is nothing to gain, they can encourage volunteers and donors to the community better.

Jo Cutler, PhD co-author of the study at the University of Sussex, said that the fact that there are different motivations raises all sorts of questions. Including the motivations of donors to certain organisations.

Some museums, for example, choose to implement a membership scheme with real strategic benefits for their customers, such as discounts.

Organizations seeking contributions should consider how they want their customers to feel. Do they want to feel altruistic and experience a warm energy of kindness? Or do they want to have a transactional mindset?

Cutler added that knowing that these two motivations overlap in the brain, charities should be careful not to offer anything that might undermine their sense of altruism.

The same issues can apply when thinking about interactions among the family, friends, colleagues or strangers.

If after a long day you help a friend move. And they give you some money, you could feel belittled and that makes you less likely to help again.

A hug and a few kind words, however, could evoke a feeling of kindness and make you feel appreciated.



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