What we talk about when we talk about altruism | The Science of Giving Series #1

A year ago today, two pressure cooker bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Terror and grief spread like shock waves across the continent, reaching our little office here in Seattle within moments of the explosion. News reports were scattered and disjointed as the nation struggled to understand what was happening, and Americans flocked in droves to social media hoping for real-time updates and reassurance. A quote began to circulate online, quickly garnering hundreds of thousands of shares:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
— Mister Rogers

With this hopeful advice in mind, we began to notice one man who seemed to appear—over and over—in the photos that were slowly beginning to emerge from the aftermath of the blast. We called him “The Man in the Cowboy Hat” and it would be several days before we knew his name and the series of events that led him to be at the Boston Marathon that day. All we knew was that this man seemingly appeared out of nowhere and began doing what we couldn’t do as we watched powerlessly from our homes and offices: he helped.
The Science of Giving
Altruism, as defined by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, “is when we act to promote someone else’s welfare, even at a risk or cost to ourselves.” Carlos Arredondo, our man in the cowboy hat, is a now iconic example of our potential to take selfless action in times of crisis, but each of us act altruistically in hundreds of different ways in our day-to-day lives. These actions, such as holding the door for someone or dropping spare change into a beggar’s cup, and those of Mr. Arrendondo, share the same origins in our brains. From monumental acts of heroism to everyday moments of kindness, research has been able to pinpoint precisely what’s happening in our gray matter when presented with an opportunity to give.
Imagine you’ve been handed $100 with the option to give some, all or none of that money to charity. Whatever you don’t give away, you get to keep. If we used an fMRI scan, a technique that measures blood flow to track brain activity, to look at your brain while you were deciding what to do with your money, we’d notice some fascinating activity in areas of the brain we typically associate with pleasure and reward. When subjects were asked to perform this task at the University of Oregon, neuroeconomist Dr. William Harbaugh noticed an interesting amount of activity in the nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain’s mesolimbic reward system which processes unexpected rewards and produces the pleasure chemical dopamine.
Dr. Jordan Grafman, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, performed a similar study by giving participants the opportunity to give money to charity or reject the charity and take the money home after the study. FMRI scans showed significant activation in the mesolimbic reward system as participants made their decisions. Dr. Grafman and his colleagues were surprised to find that the same areas of the brain reacted when participants gave to charity as when they placed the money in their personal account to take home. This research suggests that giving and altruism are inherently self-rewarding: our brains create a positive reinforcement for altruism in the same areas that reward food, drugs, money and sex. Additionally, Dr. Grafman noticed that an area of the brain that regulates the production of oxytocin, a hormone that plays a critical role in social connection, also played a key role in decisions about giving, suggesting that altruism and social relationships are inextricably related.
Drs. Grafman and Harbaugh’s research also helps explain why witnessing acts of altruism, such as Carlos Arredondo’s selfless heroism in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, gives us such warm feeling of hope, joy and pleasure. Our brains are not only wired to encourage our own generous behavior, but also to appreciate and be influenced by acts of kindness carried out by others, a phenomenon described by one study as the “social contagion” of generosity.
Altruism doesn’t appear to be limited to adults making a cognitive assessment of the choices at hand. Very young children who are unable to weigh the cost and benefits of acting altruistically have been shown, time and again, to seek out and enjoy opportunities for giving and helping behavior. In fact, dozens of species throughout the animal kingdom also display levels of altruism, from ants spending their entire lives in the service of the colony to vampire bats that routinely share food with members of their group that are in danger of starving.
All of this research helps to explain what we’ve known for generations, what Anne Frank eloquently described in one simple sentence: “No one has ever become poor by giving.” What we get when we give is just as essential to our well-being as what we’ve chosen to sacrifice. And although some acts of altruism may be motivated by the desire for recognition or simply because we want to feel good, this behavior is hard-wired as deeply and unavoidably as our yearning to be close to those we love the most.
Tragedies such as the Boston Marathon bombing may continue to befall our society. We may never be able to escape grief. But if we look for the helpers we’ll find that altruism manifests all around us in many unique and wonderful ways. With every act of generosity we shape our evolution as a species, ensuring that altruism remains deeply engrained in our biological and social fabric. Our own moments of kindness are just as heroic to the people in our lives as those of The Man in the Cowboy Hat. In the chaos and confusion of our daily lives, we are the helpers, the Carlos Arredondos for the people whose lives will be forever influenced by our presence.