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Giving is Rooted in Pleasure, Not Guilt Researchers Reported

Update Date: Oct 23, 2013 03:28 PM EDT

When charities and organizations create advertisements to get people to donate to their cause, they often try to get people to feel guilty or pity by showing them the misfortunes of other people or animals. However, even though we would like to assume that giving is encouraged by feeling bad for another being and wanting them to be better off in the world, a new study is reporting that people give because giving is pleasurable to them. In other words, people give because doing so makes them feel better.

For this study, lead researcher, Alexander Genevsky, a graduate student at Stanford University, decided to take images of people's brains to observe how brain activity tied in with donating or not donating money to a charity. Genevsky recruited 22 young adults and had them look at a series of pictures. The pictures were either a silhouette of a figure of an orphan and refugee in Darfur, Sudan or a headshot of an African child. Each picture was presented with a suggested donation ranging from $1 to $12. The participants were given $15 to start off with and an additional $15 per hour the participants stayed in the experiment. They were given the options to donate money to a Sudanese orphanage or to keep the money.

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that people were more willing to donate money if the picture was a headshot of an African child as opposed to a silhouette. When the researchers looked at the brain imaging scans, they found that the headshots activated the brain's nucleus accumbens, which is the pleasure center. More activity in this region translated to an increased likelihood of donating. The researchers concluded that the direct view of the child must have sparked an emotional connection for the participants. Feeling guilty when seeing the silhouette of an orphan did not prompt people to donate more. Overall the researchers calculated that 10 percent of the people always donated while another 10 percent never did. 80 percent donated when the picture was a headshot.

"We're finding that the reason people give to identifiable victims is because of the emotional impact it has- and specifically, the more positive emotion, the more impact," said Genevsky according to TIME. "The next step is to understand what are the differences, even along the spectrum of that middle 80% but especially at the extreme ends. Charities might want to gear their public materials and brochures to [emphasize] positive outcomes of charitable aid."

The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience

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