Why do we give at Christmas?

I hope you’ve had a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Have you made a donation over the festive period? Many people do.

Read about why Christmas has become such a key time for giving in my post for Impakter magazine here: http://impakter.com/give-christmas/


Learning to give

How can charities benefit from the neuroscience of how we learn?

As humans, we don’t often like to acknowledge the similarities between us and animals. Complex social behaviours such as giving to charity are seen as a differentiation between people and other species but is there anything to learn from recognising some of the similarities?

Many animals are capable of learning through experience. One form of learning called “operant conditioning” or “reinforcement learning” works through the pairing of actions with their consequences. If an action leads to positive consequences, it is reinforced and is more likely to be repeated. If something bad happens as a result, the behaviour is less likely to be repeated. A classic example would be training a pet to behave in a certain way by giving treats as rewards for good behaviour and punishments or withdrawing treats for bad behaviour.

Dogs can be trained to do tricks using rewards to encourage certain behaviours. (Image by Pharaoh Hound, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The last thing I want to do is compare charity donors with dogs to be punished for bad behaviour… In fact, this post was motivated by the positive changes in the charity sector towards “donor-centred” fundraising. Getting a reward not only encourages repetition of the behaviour, for example donating, but also feels great. So how can we use the science behind reinforcement learning to make sure donors feel great and keep giving?

One aspect which research has shown to be really important in decision making and learning is time. When comparing different potential outcomes to make a decision, much greater weight is given to those which will happen soon. This is known as “temporal discounting” and applies in a number of areas. Remember the last time you tried to avoid eating chocolate for distant benefits to your health but just couldn’t resist the immediate gratification of the taste? Donors may therefore be more likely to give when they anticipate the reward will be more immediate, such as the huge smile and “thank you” from a face-to-face fundraiser compared to delayed thanks from an online gift.

Social rewards in many forms can be powerful in shaping behaviour

Thank Yous are one form of reward but of course there is also the positive impact the donation has on the charity’s work and for its beneficiaries. Due to the nature of the complex issues charities address, this impact may be far away in time. For example, improved educational outcomes leading to better quality of life or research progress towards curing a disease. There are many reasons these benefits will motivate donations but it may also be beneficial to point out the shorter-term impacts.

Once a decision has been made, the time between action and reward is very influential in establishing a relationship between the two. If you threw a ball at a target and it fell over, you’d feel you’d knocked it over with the throw; if your ball hit then the target fell over a minute later, you probably wouldn’t feel like you had caused it to fall. For donors to associate the act of giving with the good feeling they get when thanked or told about the amazing impact their donation has made, it’s important to make this as soon as possible after the donation. As immediacy may often be difficult, when the thank you is received, it might be beneficial to mentally take the donor back to the moment they gave as much as possible. This could be done for gifts set up with street fundraisers with an image of the fundraiser they spoke to for example.

In neuroscience research with humans and animals, the concepts I’ve mentioned in this post have been linked to dopamine, a “neurotransmitter” or chemical messenger signal between neurons. For a long time, dopamine was seen as the reward molecule with more dopamine equated with more feel good feeling. However, many studies have now suggested that the role of dopamine may be more nuanced, instead describing it as the difference between predictions and reality. In animals trained to expect a reward following a stimulus, neurons simply maintained their normal patterns when the reward was received. However, an unexpected or bigger-than-expected reward increased how quickly they sent signals. In contrast, when a reward was expected and not received, the neurons were less active and in fact, a lack of expected reward decreases the behaviour.

Some key areas and pathways in the brain which process reward. (By Oscar Arias-Carrión, Xanic Caraza-Santiago, Sergio Salgado-Licona, Mohamed Salama, Sergio Machado, Antonio Egidio Nardi, Manuel Menéndez-González and Eric Murillo-Rodríguez. [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
The expectations of how a charity responds to a donation are complex and will vary between people. However, at a basic biological level, if expectations are not met, this will be damaging to the chances of someone repeating giving. To ensure your donor feels great, a quick thank you which goes above and beyond expectations and suggests the impact their gift is already having could be very powerful in promoting repeated giving. If you already knew that was the case, now you know why!

Next time on the Charitable Brain – when and why might thanking donors decrease giving? Subscribe so you don’t miss it!

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The generous psychology of giving to Comic Relief

Image 20170323 3520 16be5uf

Jo Cutler, University of Sussex

There is clearly something very funny about Red Nose Day. The biennial event of the charity Comic Relief raises vast sums of money for good causes. It also attracts millions of television viewers keen to watch famous people make them laugh – and donate cash. Red Nose Days have so far raised over £1billion. The Conversation

So how does Comic Relief achieve such feats of fund raising? Whether they realise it or not, the organisers have managed to tap in to several factors which, research shows, boost our desire to give.

To begin with, big events such as Comic Relief benefit from their own success, in that donating becomes a behavioural “normality”. We have a sense that everyone else around us – at home, at work, in our social lives – is doing it. When an act is widely considered to be morally desirable, as with giving to charity, there is also a strong sense that people close to you would approve of you donating. This is known as an “injunctive norm”.

But as well as being influenced by the actions and opinions of our friends, family and colleagues, we are also swayed by the behaviour of people or organisations we don’t know. This is particularly true if we trust and like them. The celebrities and brands involved with Comic Relief may increase donations through this mechanism, too.

Celebrities in particular are often well liked, so their opinions are considered trustworthy and valuable. Large, well established and popular charities such as Oxfam supporting (and benefiting from) Red Nose Day adds an element of expertise, building the idea that giving to Comic Relief is a genuinely good way to help others.

The sense that everyone else is getting involved can also lead to people asking “Why not donate?” instead of “Why should I donate?” This change in the framing of the question we ask ourselves is more likely to result in the behaviour taking place. If we need to find a reason not to donate, giving becomes the default response.

Once we have decided to go ahead and donate, other people can influence how much we give. By regularly announcing (to cheers from the studio audience) the fund raising totals of individuals or companies, Comic Relief presenters provide a benchmark for others to base their donations on. They develop a sense of friendly competition over who can raise the most.

Obviously, it wouldn’t be Comic Relief without the comedy. Some research suggests being in a good mood, in this case from laughing, leads to people feeling more generous and making larger donations. But even if the link is not so straightforward, it’s likely that mixing hard hitting appeals with comedy prevents viewers from experiencing empathy fatigue or “burn-out” and emotionally (or literally) switching off.

Feel good giving.

It’s an established finding from neuroscientific research that giving to charity activates areas of our brain which respond positively to rewards such as food, suggesting it simply feels good to give. Feeling a warm glow from giving could be enhanced if we are also in a good mood from our favourite celebrities doing something amusing. If we attribute this pleasant feeling to making a donation, it makes us more likely to give again in future.

Raising money is funny

One key reason for giving to charity is to have a positive impact on the people who receive the donation. It makes sense then, that the bigger the impact, the more we are inclined to give. A single donation to charity can sometimes feel like a drop in the ocean. But Comic Relief may also benefit from the fact that because they raise such a large sum of money, each person contributing feels like they are part of something bigger which will really make a difference.

This sense of making a difference is even stronger when we hear individual people’s stories, something Comic Relief does very powerfully with their moving filmed appeals. Having so many people in need could be overwhelming if it weren’t for the vast amounts of money being raised, which makes the viewer optimistic that the people featured in these films can actually be supported.

And supported they have been – for over 30 years. Pointing out the psychological mechanisms behind our generosity is not meant to seem uncharitable. In reality, everything we do or think has an underlying psychological explanation – it’s just that most of the time we are not aware of it.

Giving to charity is something most people believe is a good thing to do. But for much of the year, our daily lives and worries get in the way of remembering the people who need our help. If behavioural norms, some comedy and a nudge of positive feelings can motivate me to actually pick up my smartphone and donate, then personally I’m more than happy to be influenced by all those funny red noses.

Jo Cutler, PhD Candidate in Psychology, University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How does your brain know what’s going on in my brain?

In this post, “mirror neurons” – a hugely influential but controversial discovery.

Here is a picture of my brain in all its squishy, creepy glory…

Yes, it really is my brain

People often use the phrase “getting inside someone’s head” for understanding them. Do you feel like you know me better from seeing inside my head? Have you learned anything from looking at my brain?

Unless you’re a neuroscientist, probably not (and if you are a neuroscientist I hope what you’ve learned is good news for me!). But if we were interacting face to face and you could only see the outside of my head, you’d probably learn quite a lot about me.

It’s easy to take for granted quite how good we are at recognising what other people are thinking or feeling because we probably pay more attention to times we’ve got it wrong (e.g. someone has lied to us) or found it difficult (you just cannot work out why that person seems angry at you!). If you saw me reaching over to my glass of water and picking it up, you’d know I was thirsty or at least wanted to take a drink.

This might seem obvious but something being obvious is probably a sign our brains are very good at it or used to doing it. If I asked you how you know I want a drink when I pick up a glass, you might answer that when you’re thirsty you pick up a glass of water, so you’re applying the same logic to my actions. According to an influential theory in social neuroscience, this is actually how the brain works at the level of individual neurons.

Like penicillin, radioactivity and Viagra, “mirror neurons” were actually discovered by accident. An Italian neuroscience lab were running experiments measuring activity from individual neurons in monkey’s brains. This requires inserting very thin electrodes into the brain which measure the neuron “firing”, conducting electrical pulses. The aim of the experiment was to learn more about how these neurons determined the hand movements of the monkeys as they picked up pieces of food.

This baby monkey imitating a human was too cute to leave out (credits here)

As part of running the experiment, the human researchers were also picking up the pieces of food. Remarkably, they noticed that some neurons which fired when the monkey picked up the food, also fired when they observed the experimenter doing the same action. Like all good accidental discoveries, the team realised this was something meaningful and exciting and went on to do further tests. These showed the neurons were “mirroring” the actions of the person they were watching, as if the monkey itself was doing the action.

This theory could explain that overwhelming urge to yawn you often get when watching someone else yawn because seeing their yawn activates the same part of your brain which controls your yawning. Another classic example is the sense of feeling pain yourself when seeing someone else get hurt. Using neuroimaging, it has been shown that the same parts of the brain are active when we experience pain or imagine ourselves in pain as is activated by viewing someone else in pain. There is also evidence from fMRI research that areas of the human brain equivalent to those identified in the monkeys respond when we imitate others’ actions.

Feeling uncomfortable? (Image under CC 2.0 source here)

Obviously, these findings have led to some researchers claiming mirror neurons are integral to empathy and understanding others. There is also arguably some evidence the “mirror system” is disrupted in disorders of understanding others such as autism. However, this theory is far from accepted and many researchers strongly disagree. As always, some of the disagreement is around definitions and the concept of overlap between experiences I have and experiences you have in the brain is more widely accepted than some of the specific details of mirror neurons.

I think one reason the theory appeals is because it makes sense from an efficiency point of view. There are many ways in which the brain takes shortcuts to save processing time and the physical space different functions take up. Very early in evolution, the brain developed circuits to control our own actions so why develop whole separate circuits to understand the same actions of others?

Imagine you own a factory which produces white bread and you start needing to also make brown bread at different times. Would you build a whole other factory? You’d probably use the same equipment with different ingredients going in and different packaging when the bread comes out so you can tell which is which. This simplistic analogy not only demonstrates the need for efficiency, but also the crucial role of connectivity and information flow in the brain. If the whole procedure, ingredients, baking process and packaging, was the same the loaves would be indistinguishable.

In the same way, our brains have ways of telling my actions are my own and your actions are separate and, as a key criticism of the mirror neuron theory argues, a single neuron alone couldn’t do this. Obviously, the neural input (ingredients) are different, I feel my own movements or pain internally but get information about your movements or pain through vision or hearing. However, if we simply differentiated between ourselves and others, this would suggest we would have an equal understanding of, and empathy for all other people.

Clearly, this is not the case as factors such as how similar or close we are to the person and how we observe or hear of their situation influence how much we can put ourselves in their shoes. Future posts will consider some of these ways in which our understanding and empathy can be biased.

The reason you hate Trump you’ve probably never heard of

I’ve just got back from an anti-Trump demo in Brighton, England. A few thousand people were out on a Monday night, in a city thousands of miles from Washington DC, but where 1 in 20 residents signed a petition to ban Trump coming to the UK. 

People are angry and rightly so.

In the first week of his presidency, Trump has (illegally) banned people from travelling to America based on race or religion, suspended the refugee resettlement program and stopped foreign aid to schemes which are in any way linked to abortion. What do all of these policies have in common? You can probably think of multiple similarities, the descriptions of which may include swearing (there was certainly lots of “f’ing outrageous” at the demo). 

One similarity you may not have considered is that in all cases something has been lost through being banned or stopped. The positives associated with immigration, helping some of the most desperate and giving women support when they need it most have been taken away. 

Brighton city centre 30/01/2017, author’s own photo


In response, people are starting, signing and spreading petitions, organising events, making signs, giving up their time to attend demos, tweeting and generally talking about these issues. But before last week, not many people were taking any of these actions to try and increase the number of people who could come to their country via immigration or asylum or raise money for the causes they clearly believe are important.

I’m in no way trying to criticise the actions people are taking now. There’s something amazing about singing “refugees are welcome here” in your city as thousands of others chant the same all over the country and all over the world. However, decades of psychological research have shown we all have biases in our thinking and decision making and the prosocial social decisions we make are no different.

Back in the 1970’s Daniel Kahneman (incidentally an immigrant to America who escaped the Nazi regime) and Amos Tversky (also an Israeli who lived, worked and died in America) turned economic theory upside down by demonstrating in a series of experiments that people’s decisions were often irrational. A key part of their work, which later won Kahneman a Nobel prize, was showing that people find losing things more aversive than how positive they find gaining the same amount. For example, how upset you feel about accidentally dropping £10 is likely to be stronger than how happy you’d feel if you found £10. It has even been claimed that the pain of losing something is twice the joy felt when gaining it.

Back to the world of politics and this “loss aversion” could partly explain, for example why British people will fight harder to defend the NHS than Americans campaign to get public healthcare. Incidentally, Obamacare got more popular when people were set to lose it as Trump became president. It could also be one reason you’re feeling so angry at the other things Trump is taking away, which you may not have given as much thought to in the past.

Graph showing loss aversion (a.k.a Prospect Theory) for the mathematically minded. A £10 gain on the x-axis corresponds to less joy than the pain of a £10 loss


Those pretty pleased with Trump’s achievements certainly have not escaped this bias. The rhetoric of Trump’s campaign and the campaigns of other far-right politicians across the world also focus on loss, this time to create fear. The threat from immigration of losing jobs, homes, values, culture or even lives in the case of terrorism has been exaggerated, not just by these politicians but also in the irrational brains of voters. Avoiding these losses becomes far more important to people than the gains in diversity, skills, economic grown and many more factors which come with immigration.

All of the issues I’ve mentioned are of course far more complex than simply weighing up gains and losses. Political views have a complex psychology which we don’t yet understand and there are plenty of other reasons people are particularly motivated to take action at the moment (including the need to show this “populism” isn’t popular and make Trump’s first days in office as unsuccessful as possible).

But loss aversion is a well-established way in which we are irrational, so what can we do about it? I doubt that armed with knowing about this bias you’ll be able to reason with Trump supporters but feel free to give it a try. And I’m certainly not saying stop all the protesting and tweeting and petitioning in response to what he’s currently taking away. If anything, use your new understanding of loss aversion to get all your friends protesting too by emphasising what they and others stand to lose.

The Brighton protest which spread on social media, author’s own photo


Rather than decreasing what you’re doing to prevent losses in immigration, support for refugees and aid, why not also focus on things you want to gain? Surely if you’d fight for something not to be taken away it’s worth fighting to get more of it? Don’t just try and stop things getting worse but try and make them better! That way you can focus on the positives, not just the negatives, and feel smug you’re being far more rational.

Is it true altruism if you enjoy it?

Now we’re getting towards the end of January, Christmas may seem like a distant memory but cast your minds back for a moment. How did you feel when handing over your present to someone you’re close to when you were confident it was something they were going to love? Excited? Happy? Appreciated?

If you did experience any of these positive emotions does that mean your generosity wasn’t a morally good act (even if the present was really expensive!)?

Immanuel Kant

According to some strands of philosophy, it does. For those who agree with deontological theories, most associated with the philosopher Immanuel Kant, acts are only moral if motivated by a sense of duty. There is much discussion on what qualifies as providing such moral motivation which I won’t go into here. However, Kant is clear on what doesn’t count. Acts are not moral if motivated by a desire for an emotional feeling or certain outcome (the opposing moral theory of consequentialism, better-known as utilitarianism).

So anything we do because it feels good or because it will have a positive consequence for others can’t (or Kant…) be moral. For example, a father who takes his child to the park is only acting in a moral way if it is out of a sense of his duties as a father. It is not moral if he does it because he knows he will enjoy spending time with his child or because he knows it will help his child’s development.

While the debate between deontologists and consequentialists may never be resolved, in my opinion, this is increasingly a debate about how we should act. Meanwhile, psychology and neuroscience may offer more objective answers about how we act and why we act this way. It is only by understanding both elements that we can start to close the gap between how we act and how we should act.

The trolley problem – would you pull the lever to kill one person instead of five?

When faced with a moral dilemma such as the trolley problem we may feel it is worthwhile or necessary to consciously think through our moral duties or the consequences of our actions. However, to do this with every decision we ever make would be far too time-consuming and cognitively exhausting.

From stereotyping to cognitive biases, there is increasing evidence that our brains often do what is most efficient, sometimes unconsciously or automatically, even if it does not lead to the best action. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt and others have provided data which supports their claim that moral decisions are made based on emotion and intuition. Conscious reasoning comes after to provide justification for the decision which has been made but feels like this is what determines the decision.

The idea of a reptile or monkey part of our brain having to be restrained from wreaking havoc by our human brain areas is exaggerated and simplistic but can be a useful metaphor to consider. Parts of the brain which we share with other animals evolved to make very quick decisions in life or death situations so has been labelled the ‘fast route’.  This is in contrast to the ‘slow route’ to decision making which involves the deliberative conscious thinking we would traditionally associate with moral reasoning. It is likely that we overestimate how much we use the slow route because we like to think that we are rational, when in fact the fast route may dominate in many situations.

Reptile brain cartoon by Stuart McMillen – page 14 of comic Supernormal Stimuli

Getting back to giving, we now have over a decade of evidence from neuroimaging studies that being prosocial, even when it costs you, activates areas of the brain also active when we receive primitive rewards such as food or see sex-related stimuli. If Kant was still around today this could be grounds for saying prosocial behaviour and generosity cannot be moral because it feels good.

Even within psychology distinctions have been made between “pure” and “impure” altruism with the “warm glow” reward of giving being considered an impure motive, compared to only caring about the outcome for others (in line with utilitarian theories).

All of this gives enjoying giving a pretty bad name. However, in the real world, I think those who experience happiness from being generous are considered moral people and we expect them to continue this prosocial behaviour. This fits with the role of reward activity in the brain to reinforce the behaviour which caused it, such as giving to charity again if it felt good.

I’m sure the charity shop volunteer who loves raising money for others will do a much better job than someone who is there from a sense of duty. And when we think of a friend, partner or family member doing something kind for us, this feels much more genuine if we know they enjoyed it, rather than feeling they had to.

So maybe don’t listen to the deontologists or anyone who tells you that being prosocial only counts if it feels like a chore. Especially with what is going on in politics at the moment maybe we all need to experience how good it can feel to be nice.


Why bother doing anything meaningful? A psychologist’s perspective on Meaning conference.

A couple of weeks ago the annual Meaning conference took place in Brighton. If you’ve never heard of this brilliant event, as I hadn’t until recently, take a look at their website here. In their own words the event “connects and inspires a community of people who believe in better business” and has become “an annual gathering point for forward-thinking people who aren’t satisfied with the status quo”. Talks centred around ways to make business protect the planet and benefit the many, not just the few .

Setting the stage

I was very wrong in thinking this would be a collection of employees with corporate social responsibility under their remit, ticking a box for their company. Almost everyone I spoke to had taken a day’s holiday to attend and paid the ticket fee themselves. Many had been in previous years and were really excited for the next event. One person wanted it to happen every month!

The question of why so many people gave up their time and money to attend is representative of the wider question of why we do anything to help anyone else. The answer may seem obvious – of course we should help others, it’s our moral responsibility. How could we not? As much as I agree with these answers, helping is actually very strange when you think about it in the context of our evolution.

Generosity and prosocial behaviours have puzzled psychologists trying to decipher the biology behind these actions and how it evolved. They don’t really fit with a “survival of the fittest” rule which traditionally favours selfishness. The two main explanations for being nice to people centre on those people either being genetically related to you or able to return the favour. However, in the globalised business world, these explanations can’t account for kindness to people you’ll never meet or, in the case of climate change, may not even be alive yet.

Luckily our basic ability to care for others, seen most strongly towards friends and family, can be extended to more distant others, although this requires more conscious effort. The importance of being social creatures has also cemented the ability of social interactions to activate our brain’s reward systems, more traditionally associated with rewards such as food or addictive drugs. The extent to which both of these things happen are highly dependent on the context, so what does Meaning do to maximise the appetite for prosocial business?

Having an impact

Prosocial actions, like making a donation to charity, have been shown to generate reward activity in the brain in line with the “warm glow” of giving. Importantly, it seems we do actually care about the outcome for others, rather than just giving to look like a good person. Evidence that this warm glow comes from the positive impact we’ll make on someone’s life suggests the bigger the impact, the better we’ll feel and so the more likely we are to give again. One workshop at Meaning by The Life You Can Save directly addressed this by getting participants to think about the causes and organisations they can give to, in order to achieve the biggest impact. More generally, businesses are well placed to have a significant impact and someone motivated to bring about positive change may achieve something bigger by influencing their organisation that going it alone.


As it does take conscious effort and attention to broaden our circles of caring to more distant others, we’re more likely to do so when information is delivered in a way we can easily digest. Telling stories is a great example of this. Just think how stories in books and films capture our hearts and emotions. At Meaning it was the speakers who told stories who really stood out to me. Jo Berry told the powerful story of extending empathy and understanding to the man who killed her father. Oliver Maxwell tied the story of his beekeeping company to descriptions of bees’ traits, giving amusing metaphors. Finally, Juliet Davenport and Hilary Jones told us about their companies, Good Energy and Lush Cosmetics respectively, through the stories from their development history to future plans. (Some talks available by clicking the speaker’s name.)

Nowhere was the importance of storytelling more obvious than in Clare Patey’s talk and the accompanying exhibition of the Empathy Museum. This innovative art project gives the opportunity to literally walk in someone’s shoes by physically wearing a pair, while you listen to the owner’s story. They tour and exhibit all over the world, details here.

Clare Patey talking about the Empathy Museum

The social factor

Another highlight of the conference for me was lunch and not just because the food was incredible. The organisers made a big effort to emphasise that lunch is for “big talk not small talk” with cards on the tables giving interesting conversation prompts. Meeting people who think in a similar way to us is particularly rewarding based on our desire to fit in and get along with others. As attendees are self-described as not going along with the status quo, this aspect is likely to be particularly powerful. One person told me the event made him feel part of something greater which ties into the previous point about having a bigger impact when we work as a team. Meeting people who are doing inspiring things also gives us motivation and a support network to do something influential ourselves.

From the feedback and support they receive from loyal attendees, the Meaning organising team should be pretty aware already they are onto something great with this conference. By combining factors which tap into some of our basic psychological and neural mechanisms they are motivating people to team up and take on business as usual. With everything that’s happened this year, this is exactly what is needed to keep us optimistic!

A hole in humanity?

What do a giant hole, volunteering in Africa and the ice bucket challenge have in common?


Logo and website by Cards Against Humanity / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


Unless you’ve had your head in a hole for the past week you will have been aware of “Black Friday”. The company behind the “party game for horrible people”, Cards Against Humanity has developed a tradition for “alternative” Black Friday celebrations. Two years ago, they sold literal b*llsh*t – a box of cow poo – for $6. Over 30,000 people snapped up this deal. Then last year for $5, customers could buy nothing. The employees simply kept the $71,000 and posted a list of what each had spent their share on.

This year’s Holiday Hole campaign raised $100,573 to dig a giant pointless hole which, this video confirms, was dug on Sunday. This raises quite a few questions including why thousands of people wasted their money on a pointless hole. And perhaps more importantly, why didn’t the company spend the money on something more worthwhile, such as a charitable donation?

Considering the latter, it’s clearly not because they are opposed to charity, having previously raised millions of dollars for various causes. So did the organisers of the Holiday Hole campaign have a moral obligation to give away this sum too? Personally, I don’t think we can blame them. All they did was give people the opportunity to give money towards digging a hole. With over 1 million charitable organisations in the USA alone, it’s not like people needed an additional opportunity to give. As a tweet so brilliantly summed up:


Tweet by George MacKerron


Ice bucket challenge

So this brings us to the question of why people would spend money on a pointless hole rather than anything else, including a charity donation. I think a big part of the answer links to wanting to be involved with something unique and (arguably) funny and be the sort of person who gets involved with such things. This is pure speculation but I bet a lot of the people that gave towards the hole told others about it, either through social media or face to face. And this is where the ice bucket challenge link comes in because I would guess similar mechanisms were at play there. It was something people were talking about, something very obvious to post on social media, and the charity element gave people a “good person” reputation on top of being a bit daring.

As it was already a good cause, not many people questioned the decision of giving to ALS or motor neurone disease charities, rather than other organisations. As well as the fact they were doing a good thing, I think this is likely to be because the challenge, started by the ALS Association, gave people the decision: donate to ALS Association or don’t give and keep the money. In the same way, the Holiday Hole campaign offered a choice between hole or no hole. Even though they could have given the money to charity, there was no explicit third option of donating which people ignored. This is an example of compartmentalising, our tendency to separate our spending into separate chunks and don’t see one chunk as affecting another.

So perhaps the money towards the hole came from the “doing fun things” pot of money, which is seen as separate from the “charitable donations” pot. Just because someone has money to spend on things they don’t need, does not mean they will be equally motivated to spend this spare cash on different alternatives. If the option to dig a hole hadn’t been given to them, it’s unlikely they would have given the money to a charity instead. They wouldn’t have been motivated to give by feeling fun and quirky or having an amusing story to tell others.

Barbie Saviour

This is where I also see parallels with the criticisms of “voluntourism” trips that the person going abroad to volunteer should have simply given the cost of their flights, accommodation etc to a charity to employ local people to do the work. The organisations they work through didn’t give them that third option in the decision and there’s a good reason why. People get much more out of jetting off to help rather than putting the same amount of effort into just fundraising the money. Not just the experience but also the sense of identity from being someone who does good things and makes sure others know about it. (See Barbie Saviour for a parody of social media posts on voluntourism). Having an option there to give all the money and stay at home, reframes the decision. The most beneficial option becomes giving money and potential volunteers may be put off wanting to do something second best as it draws attention to their motivation to get something out of it themselves.

All of these examples suggest that when we make a decision between two alternatives, we often do so without considering any other options. It then becomes pointless to suggest other options after the decision has been made because the third option is not what motivated the action. In cases where the decision resulted in something beneficial but perhaps not the most beneficial, it is easy to argue the person should have done the most beneficial thing instead. However, as this is not the decision that was presented, you cannot assume that someone would have been equally motivated to do the best thing for whatever reason. It is a challenge for charities to make the most beneficial and the most motivating option the same option.

A helpful hole?

It is also hypocritical to criticise only a handful of decisions for being wasteful rather than beneficial. We probably only notice this issue in a few cases because compartmentalising comes so naturally to us. When was the last time you challenged yourself or others for buying bottled water or some other unnecessary luxury as the money could have gone to charity? Why do people who decided to buy a bigger TV or newer iPhone on Black Friday escape the criticism aimed at the Holiday Hole? Maybe we should all bear in mind that some things are worth spending money on, even if they are in a different compartment or outside the options of the decision you’re making. So next time you go to spend spare money, take a moment longer to think what else you could do with it. If the Holiday Hole could inspire this reflection, maybe it was worth $100,000.

Charity is not (always) evil

This post is a (very delayed) response to a friend’s blog on the evils of charity. I’d recommend reading the original post by Daniel Noon here first before continuing with my response.

As someone about to spend three years studying the psychology and neuroscience of giving to charity with the aim of increasing giving, I clearly think charities are good things. However, this does not mean I think charities as organisations are perfect or that the system is flawless. Some of the points below in defence of charities only apply to certain ways of giving. That said, if you’re reading this blog and have a computer and internet and a western salary you could probably donate enough to charity right now to save someone’s life (find out how rich you are here). I think that alone means charities are something worth keeping.

So to consider Daniel’s points one by one:

The first reason to dislike charity is because charitable giving promotes immoral behaviour.

The moral licencing effect (doing something immoral after a good deed, such as giving to charity) could arguably cancel out the good deed as Daniel suggests. However, there is nothing to show these two opposing acts must be of equal importance. Imagine I change someone’s life with a charity gift which pays for a child to go to school, then don’t hold the door open for someone. Even the person who’s just had a door slam in their face would agree I’ve done more good than harm overall.

This idea that the good can significantly outweigh the bad is particularly true for the large number of charitable gifts made by direct debit. Even if someone felt licenced to act immorally after signing up to their charitable gift, many people forget about the gift being processed each month, so will continue to do good without licencing immoral acts.

There is also evidence that the moral licencing effect can be overcome if someone feels their good deed is reflective of their generous personality, rather than feeling sanctimonious and so less likely act morally in future. Most importantly, in these situations, good deeds such as charitable gifts can become increasingly frequent as the person develops an identity as a moral person. Surely this increase in morality generally is a good thing?

The second reason to dislike charity is that it is affected by the biases of individuals.

Bias in charitable giving is a huge problem, I certainly agree with Daniel on this. In fact, a key aim of my (and many other’s) research is to understand and minimise these biases. However, I don’t think the existence of bias means we should scrap charitable giving altogether.

Daniel’s idea to make charitable organisations work across race, gender, sexuality or religion could dramatically decrease the amounts given to charities. If people give to charities which represent those similar to themselves, they are unlikely to support organisations which lack this specificity. In such a situation, minority groups may lose out the most, as they arguably feel stronger connections to charities representing their interests than the majority. It cannot be assumed that because someone gives to an LGBT+ rights charity, they would equally support a general human rights charity.

Rather than denying people the opportunity to give to organisations they identify with, it may be better to encourage people to give in a more objective way. In recognition of the biases affecting charitable giving (read “Against Empathy” by Paul Bloom here for a far better summary of the issue than I could give, and equally fascinating responses from a range of academics and practitioners), a movement has developed in recent years called Effective Altruism. Put simply, the aim of this movement is to do as much good as possible with the money given to charity, with the starting point that all lives are equal (some limit this to all human lives, others extend to animals too). In using rationality and academic research to judge the areas in which a charitable gift will make the biggest difference, Effective Altruism aims to eliminate much of the bias in giving. Gifts based on objective need lack the bias introduced by subjective identity motivations.

The third reason to dislike charity is because it relies on an ineffective and unaccountable system of funding allocation.

As above, I completely agree with this point in principle, but don’t agree it renders the process of charitable giving itself evil or to be abandoned. Instead, we need to work to improve the system and again, suggestions of how to do this have been given by Effective Altruism. A key issue in increasing accountability and proportional allocation in charitable giving is that very few organisations have data on the outcomes of their initiatives. This is partly due to a lack of demand from society. It is bizarre that when we buy a product such as a phone we expect solid numbers on performance to judge what we are getting for our money, but when it comes to charity we often have no idea what our money is achieving.

By conducting research on the functions and outcomes of charitable organisations it is possible to calculate which organisation will be able to do the most good with the specific donation we are about to give. If a charity is over-funded, this additional £10 is unlikely to be as effective as if given to an under-funded organisation. This monitoring is constantly updated; for example, a very effective charity, the Against Malaria Foundation is strongly promoted by Effective Altruism groups. However, it received so many donations from this promotion that each additional gift became less effective, so the same groups advised against further donations while some of this money was spent. It’s now back to being one of the top-rated charities around and you can read about the amazing impact of donations here. This monitoring also enables accountability as charities not achieving what they could or should be can be challenged.

The fourth reason to dislike charity is because it goes against democracy.

Without getting into debates about what democracy means, a key component is choice and with charitable giving, we can choose how to spend our money. Government tax often does not provide that choice, for example, my money being used to bomb Syria. Also, in the UK our votes are not equal due to the voting system.

Moving swiftly away from those issues, many charitable organisations work to improve democracy in direct and indirect ways. For example, campaigning groups like Amnesty International hold undemocratic governments to account, while other charitable initiatives allow people to participate in democracy through education and covering pressing needs. Someone is unlikely to get involved in politics and democracy when they’re working two jobs just to get by. Even if we scrapped the whole charity sector, rich people in society would still have more influence in a variety of ways and far less would be being done to help those less well-off to increase their influence.


I agree in large part with Daniel’s conclusion that “instead of considering charitable giving as a virtue of individuals, we should consider a symptom of a failed state”. This is particularly pertinent in relation to the UK which has seen increases in child poverty and working families accessing food banks, amongst other things, in recent years. On a global scale, we should not live in a world in which millions of people die of preventable causes or struggle to survive. However, if we all stopped giving to charity tomorrow, these issues would get far worse.

A related issue with giving to charity arises if it obscures attempts to create more systemic change to prevent suffering, such as fair wages and eliminating exploitation. However, these actions are not necessarily in competition with charitable giving and can be combined to create more certain and instant benefits to others. Charitable gifts are beneficial alongside actions towards larger scale, but harder to achieve, changes in the future. Many of Daniel’s arguments against charitable giving are valid, but should prompt improvements not abandonment of the system as a whole.

Are you a true altruist or driven by self-interest? Brain scan may give verdict

Jo Cutler, University of Sussex and Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, University of Sussex

[For my first post here is a piece I co-authored with my supervisor for The Conversation, a website of journalism style pieces written by academics working in the field. I’d definitely recommend having a look at their other articles.]

The reason why we help others at a cost to ourselves has long presented a puzzle for scientists. Why do some of us do it more than others? And are we doing it because we are truly moved by the suffering of others or simply because we feel we ought to return a favour or even get something in return? Looking at behaviour alone, it can be hard to tell. Both empathy and the principle of reciprocity – giving to return a favour or expecting others to do so – are proposed explanations for altruism which have been impossible to separate until now.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures blood flow changes in the brain, a new study suggests that specific differences in connectivity between brain regions can predict whether someone is an empathy-driven altruist, a reciprocity-driven altruist – or just selfish.

In the experiment, 34 female participants were divided into two groups. Those in the “empathy” group witnessed an actor receive painful electric shocks – and received shocks themselves (so they knew it hurt). In the “reciprocity” group, participants were paired up with actors who kindly paid money so the participant received fewer shocks (although both groups received the same number of shocks overall).

Ulterior motive or clean conscience?
Chris Yarzab/Flickr, CC BY-SA


Next, their brains were scanned. During the scanning, participants were asked to split a sum of money between themselves and another person. For the empathy group, the other person receiving the money was sometimes the partner they saw shocked. In the reciprocity group, the person was sometimes the partner who paid for the participant to receive fewer shocks. At other times, participants were simply asked to split the cash between themselves and a neutral person who neither received shocks nor did anything nice. The researchers could therefore divide the participants into those empathy-driven altruists and reciprocity-driven altruists based on the first part of the experiment. They could also use the way participants split the money in the second part to identify selfish individuals among these participants.

Unsurprisingly, the initial analysis showed that participants gave, on average, larger sums of money to the empathy and reciprocity partners than to the neutral partner – and that both groups were equally generous. Those that most regularly chose splits involving more money for themselves than the other were classified as “selfish”. But this was just the starting point. The researchers used a complex and sophisticated follow-up to gain deeper insight.

Ventral striatrum and anterior cingulate.

By looking at the timing of activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (known for a host of functions from pain and conflict to learning), the anterior insula cortex (associated with arousal and emotion) and the ventral striatum (associated with rewards and learning), the researchers created models of how information was passed between these areas. Then a computer algorithm tried to guess, based on these models, whether an individual’s altruistic decision had been motivated by empathy or by reciprocity. The high accuracy of these guesses at 77% shows the two groups of participants had brain activity patterns that differed enough to classify.

In empathy-driven altruism, the anterior insula (emotion and arousal) and ventral striatum (rewards) showed a lower than average connectivity, while reciprocity-driven altruism showed increased connectivity between these regions. Connectivity in this sense can be imagined as how much one area is “talking to” another. Although the functions of these areas are broadly known, the meaning of changes in connectivity is still difficult to interpret.

Insular cortex.

The results also showed differences in brains of those who had been classified as selfish or altruistic based on their decisions. Selfish individuals showed lower than average connectivity from the anterior cingulate cortex to the anterior insula whereas altruists had increased connectivity between these regions.

Can we learn to be more altruistic?

When it comes to implications, the differences between primarily selfish or primarily altruistic participants may be the most important finding. Inducing empathy, by seeing someone shocked, increased giving and associated neural connectivity for selfish individuals – they were more generous to the shocked partners than to the neutral person. The altruistic people, however, shared just as much with the neutral person as the shocked partner. The opposite was true for the reciprocity effect: increased giving to the partner who paid to prevent their shocks was seen in altruistic but not selfish participants.

One could speculate that this implies that altruistic participants are already giving because of empathic motivation, so increasing empathy makes no difference – they are at their “empathy capacity”. Similarly, selfish participants may already be acting due to motivations more likely to benefit themselves too, such as reciprocity.

Research on altruism regularly concludes that people have an empathetic motivation but this paper suggests potential for future studies to check whether this is the case for each individual participant. The authors also open doors to more specific measures and targets for further research on reciprocity and empathy.

The paper shows the importance of analysing subtle differences in brain communication rather than overall activity. Looking at different brain regions working together, rather than in isolation, can identify previously elusive psychological concepts, such as underlying motivations.

Future research is needed on whether these increases in altruism and neural connectivity could last, perhaps with ongoing training. For example, if the techniques used to induce empathy in the study could be employed in some sort of treatment for antisocial behaviour.

However, charities can already make the most of the current findings. They suggest empathy-inducing appeals may be most effective for new supporters, who are not yet “altruistic enough” to donate. Existing supporters, who are already altruistic, may respond more to receiving a token gift they feel they can reciprocate by increasing their donations. The effectiveness of these techniques, already used by many charities, may be explained by the findings. But with limited resources, new insight into cognitive processes that might be harnessed by appeals could help society be a bit more generous.

The Conversation

Jo Cutler, PhD student in Psychology, University of Sussex and Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.