What motivates humans to give?

We all give in some way, but what prompts us to do this? Self-gain or the genuine desire to help?

Years ago I read a book The Selfish Gene, which tried to make sense of the battle between the genetic imperative to succeed partnered with the desire to pass those characteristics on to the next generation and the ‘seemingly at odds’ need to help another person without any personal benefit.

All manner of theories have been formalised to explain this anomaly. An easy answer would be the often cited cooperation between individuals to achieve greater reward. A classic example is the Honey Badger and Honey Guide bird whose symbiosis is a way for both to benefit.

How then, can we explain altruism? People are generally happy to donate to charity. Not necessarily money, sometimes items or time. What is it about sentimental beings that moves them to, if not empathise, take pity on others in distress? Apart from the morality of charity, which is imprinted in all cultures, why do we do it?

Looking at it, the many guises it takes are legion. I am often confused when I see individuals at a traffic stop; they will give money to a beggar, only to then hoot and curse at the person driving in front of them because they took a nanosecond too long to pull off.

No more ‘charity begins at home’; it is now spread throughout our lives. The way society has an almost codified morality over so many cultures, gives an indication of how it has become an anchor for all of us. Charities, churches and even non-governmental organisations have a tax exempt status. Our law makes provision for a tax break for donations to such institutions.

What about personal giving? That extra tin put in your trolley to be donated to the needy or the flowers from a function given to a nursing facility to brighten it up.

Finally, what about the not so easily explained anonymous charity? A seminal experiment to test this act was interesting; an amount of money was given to the subject, then a number of stories were told to prompt a donation to the individual in need. From the money they were given, they could choose how much they would give, and the amount that was leftover, they could keep for themselves. Surely one would expect the subjects to pocket the whole amount? Not so, test after test, money was given to those in need.

It seems we are hardwired to give, however, it seems that we can only give so much before our brain shuts the circuit down. It seems that not only genetic factors, but also social factors play a part.

What is astounding, are the triggers in the brain to make the decision? There were two groups; the one group was more selfishly motivated, yet made choices when motivated by empathy. The other group was more socially-aware and made more altruistic decisions when motivated by reciprocity, but not empathy.

The socialisation of each group is often the difference. It appears that an extended family and village creates bonds based on the concept ‘scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’, where in more nuclear isolated communities, people are moved by abstract motivations. We do things for different reasons based on our view of the world, but all humans have the capacity to help when moved by a person’s plight.

We shouldn’t call it charity, empathy or taking pity on somebody but rather compassion. It combines the two seemingly opposed reasons why humans can do both – the concept of self-reward. Not to shout it from the housetops, but rather by making a personal choice to give anonymously to causes or people you want to.

By giving, both your primal need to give and the reining in on that need are satisfied. The practice of random acts of kindness fits the bill perfectly. It imparts the gift of giving, and studies do reveal that this outlook spills over to improved immunity. Maybe a type of charitable medical top-up!


Rev. Doctor Gereth Edwards was a practicing plastic surgeon, co-founder of the Netcare Milpark Hospital - Breast Care Centre of Excellence and the Breast Health Foundation. He then refocused his life and qualified as a minister. He writes from both a scientific and humanities view.

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