Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American essayist, lecturer and poet once wrote: “You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”
While that might be a wonderful way to approach life, researchers have found that we become more charitable as we age, and it has nothing to do with wealth.
Combining insights from psychology, behavioral economics and neuroscience, University of Oregon researchers have found converging signs of pure altruism and behavior that increase with age in the brain.
Their goal was to find a sweet spot, where altruism is done for the simple joy of community care and seeing others benefit without expecting personal rewards or recognition.
They did this by giving a test group of 80 adults $100 each to do with what they chose, primarily giving to a chosen charity or transferring it their own account.
The researchers observed the decision making process, performed personality tests and carried out functional MRI scans on participants as they watched the money being transferred either externally or to their own accounts. They were able to observe the brains’ reward centres. They determined that for some participants, it was activated more by their own good fortune in being given $100 seemingly without strings attached. However, for others, the reward centre was more active while watching the money they’d been given being transferred to charity.
Researchers then triangulated these findings and identified what they termed a ‘general benevolence’ which was highest in people aged 45 years and older.
Religion also showed a moderate, positive relationship with benevolence while gender, political orientation and annual income did not.
The finding that income was not a factor, the researchers said, indicated that the correlation they saw with age “was not simply due to older adults being generally wealthier.” Instead, life experiences may plant the seeds of pure altruism in people, “allowing them to grow into the desire to contribute to the public good.”
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