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At the beginning of the corona lockdown, it seemed that the crisis would really bring out the worst in people. Selfishness ruled the (shopping) world. It didn’t matter if others stood in front of those empty shelves, where toilet paper, noodles, soap, and disinfectants were missed so desperately. The only thing that seemed to count was that stocks could be piled up in their own basements.

On the other hand, this crisis also brought out the best in many people. People went shopping for old and vulnerable neighbors whom they hardly knew and called relatives and acquaintances whom they hadn’t spoken to for a long time. And we donated money and things for people in need. “The Corona crisis has made us increasingly aware that we are all connected and that our behavior is not without effect for others,” says Philippe Tobler, neuro-economist at the Zurich University (UZH). “We depend on the people around us and they depend on us.”

“Giving makes you happier than taking.”

Among other things, Tobler deals with the question of what happens in our brains when we show generosity. Scientifically, there are several reasons why we want to “do well”. Out of friendship or kinship, for example. Or because we hope that the other person returns the favor. Maybe we want to be in good standing with others or we are worried about our reputation. But Tobler has another explanation: generosity makes you happy. “We underestimate that a gift to others often gives us more substance than if we act selfishly.”

In an experiment with psychologist Soyoung Park and a group of other researchers, Tobler explored the link between generosity and happiness at the neural level. To this end, they informed fifty test subjects that they would each receive one hundred Swiss francs over the next four weeks. 25 people would then spend the money on other people, the other group on themselves. Later, all 50 people in an independent task had to decide how much money they would voluntarily spend on someone else. In the meantime, their brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance.

Surprising result

To the surprise of the scientists, it turned out that the 25 test persons who had committed themselves to spend the 100 francs on others had behaved more generously in the independent task and considered themselves happier than the control group. The pleasant feeling that economists call “warm glow” apparently has nothing to do with the value of the gift, but only with the giving itself. The results showed that generosity is a variable that can be changed and manipulated. It can be learned and practiced, “chocolate stick by chocolate stick“.

How generous we are, depends on very different factors, the researchers emphasize. Several studies have shown that the poor are proportionally more generous than the rich because they are better able to move in the position of others. However, other studies concluded that the poor and the rich donate more than people on average incomes. Moreover, older people are generally more generous than younger people. “This may also be due to the fact that they probably have more money.”

Women are more generous than men

Tobler and his colleagues see the reason why women are generally more generous than men in the fact that women’s neural reward system (in which the messenger substance dopamine is released) reacts more sensitively to prosocial behavior such as donations than men’s does. Generosity is therefore generally more rewarding in female than in male brains. Another experiment showed that giving testosterone made men more selfish. “But especially toward people who are not close to them.”

However, Tobler emphasizes that in general one cannot say that women are more generous than men. It is also learned behavior. Girls often receive significantly more positive feedback from an early age than boys if they behaved selflessly and took others into account. “Generosity is a behavior for which they are rewarded – and dopamine plays a crucial role in strengthening and evaluating certain actions.” On the other hand, not all men are selfish. “For example, men are more likely to put themselves at risk to others than women.” Besides, sometimes selfishness isn’t bad, Tobler says, based on professional literature about a man whose generosity after a stroke knew no bounds: “To his wife’s grief, he gave away all her possessions in a very short time.”

Generosity shows itself in the brain

When we are generous, especially the temporal-parietal lobe transition is active in the brain, scientists say. At such moments we can move into the position of others. The temporal parietal lobe junction also communicates more intensively with the striatum in more generous people than in stingy people. The striatum is part of the reward system in the brain and plays an important role in our feeling of happiness. “The more intensely the two brain structures communicate with each other, the more generous – and satisfied – we are with corresponding decisions.”