Why Those Who Feel They Have Less Give More

BY Paul Solman  June 21, 2013 at 10:52 AM EDT

What is it that wealth does to people? On Thursday’s Making Sen$e segment, Paul Solman traveled to the University of California, Berkeley, to examine the connection between wealth and happiness. His report on the psychology of wealth, which appears above and is slated to air on PBS NewsHour Friday, shows that people who feel less well-off, whether in real terms or in simulated settings, tend to act more charitably. An excerpted transcript of his extended interview with University of California, Berkeley, psychologist Dacher Keltner follows. Dacher is the founding faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley.

Dacher Keltner: We’re starting to paint this really interesting picture of how wealth influences generosity. If you study at the societal level, who gives higher proportions of their income away to charity? Lower class people give more.

And what’s really interesting is we’re finding that lower class people just have a sharper sensitivity to need and to people who could use a little help. But when you simply prime, or you just get people from an upper class background, to think about the need in their environment, you see rises in generosity.

Paul Solman: Rises to the same extent that poorer people give away their money?

Dacher Keltner: Yeah. The very simple experiment that we’ve done is if we have upper class individuals going through an experience of compassion or see something that portrays suffering, you see rises in generosity to comparable levels of the poor.

Paul Solman: But the simple Darwinian story is if I have more resources than you, I can have more kids than you; my kids will pass on my DNA, which is the resource-hoarding DNA.

Dacher Keltner: That was sort of an older view of how we evolved as the particular social species we are, but what we’re learning through a lot of new advances in evolutionary biology is that we really had to cooperate to make it as a species. We had to cooperate in terms of food gathering, defending against predators and so on. And human cultures evolved particular tendencies to reward the generous — to ensure that there weren’t people hoarding resources and that the resources were more equally distributed.

There are really interesting new literatures on this called competitive altruism, which is as you give things away, in many different cultures, from hunter-gatherer societies to today’s America, you rise in the respect of your peers.

Paul Solman: How does this fit into your project here, The Greater Good Science Center?

Dacher Keltner: For a long time, I’ve been interested in a question that has confounded people who have thought about human evolution, and this goes back to Alfred Russel Wallace, Thomas Huxley and Charles Darwin, which is: Why in the world are people good to other people? Why are we kind? Why do we give things away?

Thirty-one percent of Americans volunteer for strangers on a regular basis. We give enormous amounts away. And what we’ve started to learn is that there are big parts of our nervous system that make it inherently pleasurable to be generous to others. That’s fascinating to me. We are also learning a lot about the social processes by which generosity becomes contagious. It is contagious. There are studies of workplaces where, if I move to a part of an organization where people give a lot to charity, I don’t know why, but I start giving a lot to charity. What is it about the species we are that produces a lot of striking generosity in our social behavior?

Paul Solman: And your answer is…?

Dacher Keltner: My answer is hyper-vulnerable offspring that are born very dependent, taking years, decades to reach the age of viability. And that just changed everything. That meant we had to cooperate with each other; we had to share things.

Paul Solman: In the introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene,” he said the only thing he would change is he would call the book “The Cooperative Gene.”

Dacher Keltner: Yeah. Now I think people who are interested in the evolution of cooperation are realizing that genes and cells have to cooperate with each other to build the systems that make up who we are, and I would push it even further.

I’m really excited about a set of findings about oxytocin, a neuropeptide that’s manufactured in your hypothalamus and it goes into your brain, and then shoots through your bloodstream and your body. There are genes that help build up that oxytocin system — you find one on the third chromosome and people who have a particular version of it are very generous, right. So that tells us you’re genetically programmed to cooperate.

We’ve known for a long time that oxytocin helps with milk letdown and breast feeding, and more recently, studies are finding that it helps you trust and cooperate and share resources with others. And that has led to this whole incredible line of work that we’ve been part of: that if I just get a little whiff of oxytocin in a nasal spray, I give more money to strangers; I read people’s emotions more effectively; I am tighter with my group; if I’m in a fight with my romantic partner, I resolve the conflict more constructively.

Paul Solman: But there’s this counter philosophy, exemplified by Ayn Rand, which is that altruism is actually bad because it suppresses our freedom to be ourselves.

Dacher Keltner: Yeah, there’s a lot of very deeply entrenched skepticism about altruism in western culture that goes back millennia, and one of the great advocates of this skepticism is Ayn Rand. I’ll quote from her 1960 essay: “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” And she had this argument that thinking about the needs of others is an enemy of freedom, and strength and self-expression.

There are a lot of new data that show if you’re generous, and charitable and altruistic, you’ll live longer; you’ll feel more fulfilled; you’ll feel more expressive of who you are as a person; you probably will feel more control and freedom in your life. So the science calls that thesis into very deep question.

Paul Solman: And yet that’s a thesis that has a lot of traction these days.

Dacher Keltner: It does, but, you know, I’m really encouraged by, you know, what’s happening with the millennials and the interest that places like Facebook and Google are showing in terms of promoting charity and generosity and a consideration of other people’s interests.

I’m lucky enough to be doing a bit of work on Facebook that’s oriented towards making their site more compassionate, and they are actively interested in creating pieces of the social network that are for giving away things. So, it’s going to be interesting to see if they deliver on that.

Paul Solman: But you’re telling our audience that they would be better off if they gave away more.

Dacher Keltner: Yes. We know that generosity gives you bursts of dopamine, which is a sense of pleasure and enthusiasm about life. We know that acts of generosity will activate parts of your peripheral nervous system that calms stress response, which is interesting. So, giving counteracts stress. We know from longitudinal research that people who give through charity 14 hours a week or so — they live longer. Their life expectancy actually gets a dramatic boost through acts of charity. So, you put this story together: charity gives you happiness; it takes you out of that stress modality and your nervous system towards more optimal functioning, and then it gives you longevity. I don’t know what else you need — those are good data, from my standpoint.


This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions