Can we use our knowledge of brain activity to make people more generous?

Cendri Hutcherson of the Toronto Decision Neuroscience Lab answers


Yes, I think we can. There are three distinct ways that come to mind.

First, we are beginning to be able to directly manipulate activity in the brain regions that are closely linked to generosity. One way this is done is by stimulating or suppressing these regions with small magnetically-induced electrical currents. For example, researchers in a recent study electrically suppressed activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex, an area implicated in both self-control and in social decision making. This suppression increased pure generosity (where there’s no hope of getting something in return) and decreased strategic generosity (where people are being nice to avoid punishment). It’s not totally clear yet exactly why these patterns were observed, but it shows that we can make people more and less generous simply by knowing which parts of the brain to target. Obviously it isn’t practical to zap people’s brains in real life, but if we can find other ways to change activation in these areas we might be able to successfully increase generosity.

Second, we are starting to understand the precise neural computations that the human brain uses to make choices about whether to be generous. For example, in my work I build neurally-informed computer simulations that can predict when people will act generously. What’s interesting about these simulations is that they also predict a lot of other really cool things. For instance, I can tell whether and when a particular person will feel like generosity takes a lot of effort, or whether it feels really easy. I can accurately predict whether a person will start to act generously but then change their mind. I can even predict to a certain extent whether a person will regret having acted generously. Eventually, we might be able to harness these computational simulations to increase generosity, by giving people choices that will be easier for them to make and that they’ll be happier about later.

Finally, neuroscience can help us to understand why people give, a question for which we still don’t have a fully satisfying answer. For example, are people generous because they genuinely want to help others, or simply because it makes them feel better about themselves? In all likelihood, the answer is that both of these motives can be active simultaneously. But they might be more or less powerful for different people. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to know who is motivated by what. Very few people want to admit they’re being generous purely for the personal glory! Some people may not even know exactly why they give. But with neuroscience, we are starting to be able to identify neural signatures of these different motives, essentially performing a kind of mind-reading. We’re only just at the beginning of this endeavour, but eventually we will start to understand when, why, and for whom different messages or appeals for generosity will be more successful at increasing generosity. 

Cendri Hutcherson is the director of the Decision Neuroscience Laboratory and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.