Sex, Food and... Generosity?

A landmark study from the Harvard Business School shows that generosity-and its benefits- are deeply ingrained in human nature.

Can money buy happiness? Possibly. Especially if you give your money away. Generosity may be a psychological universal according to a new study from the Harvard Business School. That is, generosity appears to be an evolutionary trait akin to sex and eating that provides benefits to individuals (and our species as a whole). From the study:

This research provides the first support for a possible psychological universal: human beings around the world derive emotional benefits from using their financial resources to help others (prosocial spending). Analyzing survey data from 136 countries, we show that prosocial spending is consistently associated with greater happiness.

In contrast to traditional economic thought—which places self-interest as the guiding principle of human motivation—our findings suggest that the reward experienced from helping others may be deeply ingrained in human nature, emerging in diverse cultural and economic contexts.


The study builds on decades of research (beginning with Darwin), which has shown that generosity favored survival in our evolutionary past and may have helped us develop large scale systems and infrastructure like cities and economies.

Indeed, theorists have argued that the evolution of altruistic behavior was essential in producing the large-scale social cooperation that allowed early human groups to thrive (Darwin, 1871/1982; Henrich & Henrich, 2006; Tomasello, 2009;Wilson, 1975).

By age one, nearly all children respond prosocially to others in distress (Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, Wagner, & Chapman, 1992), and both human infants and chimpanzees will provide instrumental help to a stranger— even when no reward can be expected for helping—suggesting that humans and our nearest evolutionary relatives may find helping others inherently rewarding (Warneken & Tomasello, 2006).

If the capacity for generosity favored survival in our evolutionary past, it is possible that engaging in generous behavior might produce consistent, positive feelings across diverse cultural contexts—akin to the pleasurable feelings associated with other adaptive behaviors such as eating and sexual intercourse.


To test this idea, the study was conducted across 136 countries and throughout different socio-economic groups. Importantly, the research demonstrates not just a correlational but a causal relationship.

To test the causal impact of prosocial spending on well-being, we randomly assigned participants in Canada and Uganda to write about a time they had spent money on themselves (personal spending) or others (prosocial spending)... As predicted, there was a significant main effect of spending type, whereby participants randomly assigned to recall a purchase made for someone else reported significantly higher SWB (social well being) than participants assigned to recall a purchase made for themselves.


What's more, even though generosity manifests differently in rich and poor countries (both in terms of frequency and form) the results were the same: regardless of income or culture, people reported more positive feelings from purchasing for others than themselves.

That the study came out of the Harvard Business School is revealing. Most business models (and capitalism, really) are built on the premise that self-interest is the fundamental human motivation. But this study calls into question or at least complicates the matter. Because even if our altruism is somehow motivated by our own self-interest ("remember that money I loaned you a while back?") it does remind us that our success as individuals and as a species is more interdependent than we may realize.

At the very least it recalls the adage that has found its way into the dogma of so many religions around the world: do unto others as you would have done unto you.

Image (cc) via Flickr user DiGiSLR


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