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UO research seeks to find do-gooders.

Byline: Diane Dietz The Register-Guard

University of Oregon researchers have found a high-tech way to learn if you are among the very good at heart.

The researchers put 80 members of the university's classified staff - ages 18 to 67 - through a trifecta of tests that examined their personality traits, economic behaviors and neurological patterns.

They were excited to find some participants whose brains lit up at the sight of altruism; whose personality test results tended toward the empathetic; and who were prone to giving money to others, often and well.

"That all of these things are related suggest that we really have tapped into what we call 'general benevolence,'" said Ulrich Mayr, who is head of the UO psychology department.

Mayr's co-researchers were UO economist Bill Harbaugh, psychologist Sanjay Srivastava and psychology doctoral student Jason Hubbard, who was instrumental in pulling the work together. Their study appears in the August edition of "Journal of Experimental Psychology: General."

Among the researchers' conclusions is that benevolence roughly doubles with age. "It's pretty dramatic," Mayr said.

Among those older than 45, the brain tends to exhibit more excitement when seeing altruism; they score higher in pro-social personality traits; and they are more likely to report charitable giving than younger participants.

In the United States, charitable donations of 1.7 percent of income among 21- to 29-year-olds more than doubles to 4.1 percent among those 65 and older, the researchers reported.

"We didn't know why that was the case," Mayr said. "Our study does bring us a little closer to that because it indicates that, yes, it actually has to do with a growth and strengthening of this 'pure' altruism, this general benevolence factor."

The heightened giving in older participants was not just because they tended to have more money. In fact, income is a very poor predictor of how much people give, Mayr said.

"Look at the survey data and you see a bathtub (shaped) curve," he said. "The really poor people give a lot. The really rich people give a lot. And the broad middle, relatively speaking, less."

Mayr can't explain why the poor give more, but one compelling idea is that they do so "because they most likely have experienced the benefits of somebody else giving to them. It's kind of a cycle. They understand the importance of doing good."

Other researchers have suggested that, everything else being equal, money doesn't have the same meaning to a 65-year-old as it does to a 20-year-old. Their life horizon is shorter, so there's less need to accrue money, Mayr said.

"You can focus more on what is really meaningful and emotionally rewarding at this point in time," Mayr said. "For a lot of (older) people, it's more rewarding to think about others than to think about oneself."

So the transition from one end to the other end of adulthood means there's still hope for the cranks in one's life - right?

"Absolutely - if they're young," Mayr said. "If they're really old, it's too late."

Seeing altruism

The researchers validated what subjects say about their human feelings by seeing what happens in "self-gain" vs. "charity-gain" scenarios while the subjects were in an MRI scanner.

Participants rested in the machine for an hour as 120 story images flashed by them. In some scenarios, they passively watched money going to charity. If their brains' electrical circuits lit up, the researchers chocked it up to altruism because participants had no role. They couldn't take credit for the donation - yet the researchers could see the warm glow of giving on their brain scans.

The activity showed up on scans in the classical pleasure and reward center of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, and also farther to the front, the medial frontal cortex, which is involved in social cognition and behavior.

Those areas of the brain light up in the altruist when other people get money; but in the self-centered, it lights up more often when they themselves pocket money.

The findings rebut the cynical view of many that people never give out of the goodness of their heart but always for ulterior motives - such as signaling to others their wealth or trustworthiness, Mayr said.

"There is - aside from that - a core of true, benevolent giving where the focus is on the other and not themselves," he said.

Other studies

Altruism is a hot topic right now in psychological and biological journals.

This month, the British Journal of Psychology published a study with 800 people that found that altruistic people have more sex. Sex has evolved as a signal of other desirable qualities, the authors said.

Also, a study recounted in Current Biology involved 1,151 children - 5- to 12-years-old - from six countries. Researchers gave them stickers, then said other children wouldn't get any. They considered the number of stickers the kids gave away in that circumstance as a measure of altruism.

At first, scientists concluded that Christian and Muslim children were less likely to share than those who were non-religious. But a re-evaluation of the data found the variation was influenced more by what country the children lived in.

Lessons in good

The UO researchers suspect that the general benevolence inclination they found in some subjects is a muscle that can be strengthened over time with use.

"Learning can be a big factor here," Mayr said. "Opportunities where you do something good for others - and then actually see that it feels good to you - may strengthen that kind of behavior."

The UO researchers say they have all kinds of ideas for follow-up studies. Would they get the same results in another country, could they track an increase in benevolence over time in individual people, could they explain the reason for big givers among the poor?

"These are really interesting questions," Mayr said.

Follow Diane on Twitter @diane_dietz. Email
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Title Annotation:University Of Oregon; Among the study's findings is that charitable giving generally increases as a person ages
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 17, 2016
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