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Brain-imaging study links charity, pleasure

That good feeling you get by writing a check to your favorite charity could be your brain patting itself on the back.

Reporting in today’s issue of the journal Science, a team of economists and psychologists at the University of Oregon have found that donating money to charity activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure.

The study represents a major advance in the young field of neuroeconomics, a collaboration between economists and psychologists to determine how the brain directs the way people handle money.

Economic models would suggest “only Bill Gates or Warren Buffett should be making contributions, and everyone else should just free-ride,” said one of the authors, economics professor William T. Harbaugh. “But that doesn’t happen; there’s high participation, where even low-income people are giving away a portion of their income.”

The apparent reason is that giving to others produces a “warm glow.” As Harbaugh described it, “people feel good knowing that they’re a charitable giver.”

Brain-imaging technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, which uses magnetic waves to monitor acute changes in brain activity, may allow economists to uncover answers about human behavior and motivation that were previously hidden.

In the study, female college students were given $100, then told either that a mandatory transfer of money would go from their account to a local food bank or that they could make a voluntary donation to the same charity. At the end of the study, the women were allowed to keep the remainder of the money.

Using MRI, the investigators found that both mandatory and voluntary transfers increased activity in brain areas called the nucleus accumbens and the caudate nucleus. These areas have previously been associated with the brain’s response to rewarding stimuli, such as taking street drugs or viewing pictures of loved ones.

The reward reaction was more intense with the voluntary giving, which the authors argue supports the notion of a “warm glow” phenomenon.

The authors argue their study supports the idea of “pure altruism” – that people take action even if the behavior is not explicitly in their own interest.

But Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, warned against drawing broad conclusions based upon this limited sample.

“They picked female college students in Eugene, Ore., a very politically liberal place in which students have money, and are giving to a food bank – who cannot like that? If I go to Tennessee and say the donation is going to an abortion clinic, it’s a whole different ballgame.”