On 11th March 2011, I was on the fourth floor of a building in Tokyo when the earthquake struck Japan. One month later, I was among the first group of volunteers sent to the most devastated areas. Four months later, I was working as the international volunteer coordinator.
Witnessing the arrival of volunteers from such diverse backgrounds, all choosing to invest so much time and determination into the relief efforts, it dawned on me that in situations like this, our layers of identity are removed and what is left is our fundamental human nature; the desire to help others. I was left wondering:
- What are the psychological, ethical, cultural or even biological and scientific stimulus that drive us to want to help?
- Aside from the number of people assisted, is there a difference between the philanthropist who donates a million pounds to charity, compared with the mother who nurtures her children on a daily basis?
- Where does this intention to give or to help come from?
A small research revealed some interesting insights into the inherent and evolutionary facets of human nature.
The psychology of giving
In 2017, a group of fundraisers and neuroscientists met to discuss the reasons and motivations behind an individual’s decision to donate. The scientists claimed that by looking at brain activity it enabled them to differentiate between altruistic drivers versus more selfish motivations (1). They discussed topics, including the reasons behind why people react more intensely to the death of one person than the death of thousands, and how research into this psychology and these emotions could lead to further philanthropic action.
Jen Shang is the world’s first philanthropic psychologist and a professor of philanthropic psychology; (2) Adrian Sargent is head of Plymouth University Philanthropic Psychology Research (3), and together they published a book called “The Psychology of Philanthropy: The Science Behind Giving”. The book looks at concepts such as giving to reinforce one’s sense of self and how our sense of who we are can determine the reasons for our need to give. According to Jen Shang, “…philanthropy is a way for people to experience human love” (4).
On a broader scale, it has been argued that corporate philanthropy, at an executive level, is geared towards business objectives, whereas individual employees are more motivated by empathy and the desire to help those in need (5). A study, looking at the different effects of employees giving to or receiving from a support programme within a company, described them as seeing the company they worked for as caring and therefore felt the increase desire to be a part of and work hard for the company (6).
As this ripple of caring spreads throughout the corporate world, how does the change impact our social and ethical values? Or do our values have an effect on the corporate world? Giving can no longer be viewed as a mere philanthropic whim, as evidenced by scientific research. This research explains giving as the workings of the human mind and heart, reflected as one of our basic human needs, for both the receiver and the donor.
Volunteering and donating are concepts that have increased in popularity since the 1980’s, thanks to the televising of the famine-stricken people of Ethiopia via Live Aid. The concept of charity, however, has long been established around the world through religion, where religious beliefs, values, and ideas have called on individuals to help those that need it (7).
Helping others in the name of religion
The Charities Aid Foundation publishes an annual report called the “World Giving Index”, in which it describes the world of today as the “golden age of generosity.” Economies continue to grow, with the global middle-class estimated to reach 2.4 billion people by 2030. If 0.5% of this spending was allocated to donations, it would have the potential to generate $319 billion for civil society organisations (charities). The index ranks Myanmar as the highest giving nation, in terms of monetary donations, volunteering time, and helping a stranger. With almost 90% of Mayanmar’s population practising Buddhism, “dana” – translated as the act of giving joyfully and graciously – plays a principle role in their religious practice and daily life (8).
The act of giving has a fundamental role in the religion of Islam, in which there are two forms of giving. Zakaah is a type of charitable giving which equates to the redistribution of a tax system; Sadaqah is about giving only to please Allah rather than for recognition (9). Whereas much has been written on Zakaah, little has been studied about Sadaquah. In 2008, Singer published an attempted historical account on “Charity in Islamic Societies” from the beginning of Islam to the present day (10).
A small study on altruism within Christianity (7) divided people into groups, who helped:
- To create a religious identity
- For the belief that religion is about helping others
- As part of God’s mission and
- For religious growth
Judaism describes a world that stands on three pillars: the Torah (part of the Jewish bible); service to God and Gemilut Hasidim, which translates as “the giving of loving kindness” (11). This third pillar of loving kindness includes all types of charitable work that is done without expecting anything in return (12).
Religion promotes giving and helping through intrinsic motivation, by finding deeper inner meaning from these actions. Conversely, extrinsic motivation is about recognition and reward. Does the intention matter – selfish or not? Neither makes any difference to the charity or the person receiving but could it help our personal growth?
As we observe the evolution of human nature, particularly that of mind and behaviour, it is possible to see that these aspects have changed significantly since our ancestors, who walked the earth 2.3 million years ago (13). Emotions have evaded archaeological records until recent years, where studies have shown that emotion derives from thought, a concept well recognised in some religions, such as Buddhism. Some emotions, such as empathy, compassion, and shame, are more prevalent within societies than other types of emotion. It is, however, compassion that defines humanity. According to the Dalai Lama, compassion incorporates love, and the interdependent human need to help and respect others combines emotion with reason (14).
The biology of giving
Visions of Compassion by Davidson et al presents a study on oxytocin, a hormone and neuropeptide that is released when human mother’s give birth and nurse their babies. A review of oxytocin suggests that it may exist to help nurture the bond between mother and infant. Oxytocin is said to release a sense of interpersonal warmth and calm (15); based on this concept, the act of compassion may reflect the process by which oxytocin facilitates social-interconnectedness. Davidson et al suggest that the release of oxytocin and the act of compassion may have other positive biological effects that have yet to be discovered or developed.
The topic of altruism and compassion are evident forms of human nature and social evolution, even if they are difficult concepts to prove scientifically. In recent years, there has been an increased acceptance of social diversity, and a growing awareness of compassion that extends beyond our own beliefs and community. For example, in some criminal cases restorative justice has proven effective in supporting victims and perpetrators, helping them to understand behaviours and find some peace (16).
The ripples of compassion and the desire to help others are common and enduring traits of human nature, but it is the nature of our choices for helping which is evolving. With this in mind, we can return to the question of what drives us to choose to help, and the impact it has on us and those around us. What is our intention in helping someone and where does it come from? Where and when do we express the natural human instinct to want to help? It could be the smallest gesture: a smile, a word of encouragement, a thoughtful donation, a helping hand. If ripples of compassion really do exist then every drop how ever small will make a difference.
- UK Fundraising. Meet the neuroscientists researching charity giving [Internet]. [cited 2018 Jul 5]. Available from: https://fundraising.co.uk/2017/11/24/meet-the-neuroscientists-researching-charity-giving/#.Wz5EkthKjML
- Third Sector. Jen Shang of the University of Plymouth on why giving can make you happy [Internet]. [cited 2018 Jul 6]. Available from: https://www.thirdsector.co.uk/jen-shang-university-plymouth-why-giving-happy/fundraising/article/1339507
- UK Fundraising. Adrian Sargeant to lead philanthropic psychology research centre at Plymouth University [Internet]. [cited 2018 Jul 6]. Available from: https://fundraising.co.uk/2014/01/27/adrian-sargeant-lead-philanthropic-psychology-research-centre-plymouth-university/#.Wz5DJNhKjMI
- Sargeant A. Psychology of philanthropy. Routledge; 2016.
- Muller AR, Pfarrer MD, Little LM. A THEORY OF COLLECTIVE EMPATHY IN CORPORATE PHILANTHROPY DECISIONS. [cited 2018 Jul 6]; Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.5465/amr.2012.0031
- Grant AM, Dutton JE, Rosso BD. GIVING COMMITMENT: EMPLOYEE SUPPORT PROGRAMS AND THE PROSOCIAL SENSEMAKING PROCESS. [cited 2018 Jul 6]; Available from: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.555.8643&rep=rep1&type=pdf
- Einolf CJ. The Link Between Religion and Helping Others: The Role of Values, Ideas, and Language. [cited 2018 Jul 25]; Available from: http://socrel.oxfordjournals.org/
- Encyclopedia.com. Dana (Giving) - Dictionary definition of Dana (Giving) [Internet]. [cited 2018 Jul 6]. Available from: https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dana-giving
- Lambarraa F, Riener G. On the Norms of Charitable Giving in Islam: A Field Experiment. 2012 [cited 2018 Jul 23]; Available from: http://www.dice.hhu.de/fileadmin/redaktion/Fakultaeten/Wirtschaftswissenschaftliche_Fakultaet/DICE/Discussion_Paper/059_Lambarraa_Riener.pdf
- Singer A. Charity in Islamic societies [Internet]. Cambridge University Press; 2008 [cited 2018 Jul 23]. 246 p. Available from: https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Charity_in_Islamic_Societies.html?id=Q5pSPgAACAAJ&redir_esc=y
- Witkin H. Three Pillars - Pirke Avot 1:2 [Internet]. [cited 2018 Aug 1]. Available from: http://www.aish.com/sp/pg/48884852.html
- BBC - GCSE Bitesize. Gemilut Hasadim - loving kindness [Internet]. [cited 2018 Aug 1]. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/rs/poverty/juconcernrev2.shtml
- Spikins PA, Rutherford HE, Needham AP. From Homininity to Humanity: Compassion from the Earliest Archaics to Modern Humans. Time Mind [Internet]. 2010 Jan 28 [cited 2018 Aug 16];3(3):303–25. Available from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.2752/175169610X12754030955977
- The 14th Dalai Lama. Compassion and the Individual [Internet]. 2014 [cited 2018 Sep 11]. Available from: https://www.dalailama.com/messages/compassion-and-human-values/compassion
- Davidson RJ, Harrington A. Visions of Compassion: Western Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human Nature [Internet]. [cited 2018 Aug 22]. Available from: http://ebooks.bharathuniv.ac.in/gdlc1/gdlc4/Arts_and_Science_Books/arts/philosophy/Books/Visions of Compassion.pdf
- Gumz EJ, Grant CL. Restorative justice: a systematic review of the social work literature. Fam Soc [Internet]. 2009 [cited 2018 Sep 13];90(1):119–26. Available from: https://www.scie-socialcareonline.org.uk/restorative-justice-a-systematic-review-of-the-social-work-literature/r/a1CG0000000GgJ8MAK