Why so stingy? The Neuroscience of generosity

Generosity is an interesting beast. As an ex-charity CEO, I have seen it expressed in many different ways. The best kind of generosity comes with warmth and good old NSA - no strings attached. This kind of generosity is glorious to witness and is the backbone of charity work all over the world. The worst kind smacks you over the head with their husband’s cheque book.

I wrote a whole chapter about kindness and another on charity in my memoir, but I have continued to wonder about the ‘why’ of generosity. Why do some people give with nothing expected in return, even when they don’t have much themselves? Why do others use it to wield control and command kudos? 

So I do what I always do when I don’t understand why people behave the way they do and I consult the neuro-scientific research.

The origins of human generosity go back to when knuckle-draggers evolved into hunter-gatherers. Survival of the species relied on a herd mentality of care where older, fitter humans helped younger, slower, cuter ones. Those who didn’t participate in sharing or self-sacrifice for the herd were removed by natural selection. I wish stingy bastards in the twenty-first century were the same: removed by natural selection.

Nature and nurture

According to science, humans are a combination of nature and nurture when it comes to generosity. The brain rewards you with a shot of feel-good dopamine when you are generous. That delicious hormone literally sizzles through your bloodstream when you take your imaginary generosity gland for a whirl. It is a biological boomerang: give to someone who needs it and the joy will bounce right back at you as a warm fuzzy feeling of reward and delight.

Humans employ two things when they are assessing whether to be generous: logic and empathy. The distraction of the decision-making part of the brain causes people to be more generous. Logic introduces an assessment of benefit and loss for giver and receiver. If the giver sees they can make a difference to the receiver without any significant loss to themselves, we have a winner in the logical generosity department!

It is the nurture side of the generosity coin that makes generous behaviours part of everyday life. Humans need tutoring. The lady who buys a coffee for the homeless man in Bourke Street Mall is naturally an empathic human. But she has been taught that giving and caring is a part of life. She has tried it and it felt good so her brain keeps rewarding her. It is her memories and education that remind her to do it again and regard it as normal. She lives in a cycle of generosity perpetuated by a nature/nurture combo of giving and receiving with only enough logic to keep her safe and secure.


I asked the founder of Chuffed.org, Prashan Paramanathan, what he thinks are the key social drivers for the “chip in” mentality that drives crowdfunding platforms like Chuffed. Why do people give their hard earned cash to the legal battles of homophobes? And why do others make donations to help asylum seekers or a dying little girl they will never meet?

“In my opinion, all people have a generous side, but everyone has different motivations, values, triggers and wildly different contexts from which to give. People give when it is connected to their personal values and context.”

Prashan mentions an interesting dynamic when it comes to giving. He says that in Australia we have a social expectation that the government will look after the needy, including foreign aid, because crap on a cracker, we pay a lot of tax and we have a huge welfare system. In the USA, Americans give more generously than Aussies because there is little or no government-funded assistance for the needy. The herd kicks in again.

Generosity comes in some standard trend packages when they are expressed as giving to a cause. For example: women chip in, volunteer or donate more than men do, probably because women are generally born with more neurological empathy; seniors are more likely to give to charity online than 18-24 year olds; Thursdays see a spike in online giving (weird); and people love to drink and drive: have a vino and donate online in the evening. That means 9pm on the last day of the financial year, 30 June, is a fine time to run a very targeted fundraising campaign to women over 65 who love a good shiraz. If only it was a Thursday!

Why so stingy?

So what makes a stingy bastard? Or worse, someone who is generous for all the wrong reasons. It seems to be the work of the nature/nurture/values trifecta. All three of which are done and dusted by the time humans are young adults. Meet an older person who lacks generosity and you really can’t convince them to repave their neural tendencies and nurtured behaviours with values of generosity and welfare. Unless you can appeal to their ego.  

If you are born with less neural empathy (nature) than the next guy, you will be less likely to give. But that part of your brain is not fully developed until humans are 30. This explains why teenagers can be such breathtakingly selfish creatures. Teen brains lack neural empathy. 

If you are raised (nurtured) to regard generosity as someone else’s problem, then you are even less likely to be feeding the homeless on Christmas Day. And one last nail in the coffin of generosity is if you value security over all else. People align to their values. Unfortunately those who value security at the top of the tree will never give from their own wealth. They’ll amass it just to be sure they’re secure.

Giddy up testosterone

Humans are such complex creatures. Just when you thought you had them worked out, in marches ego, riding on a chariot of testosterone. Those who have an inflated sense of self-importance will be generous but not because they love the dopamine or because they value the safety of the herd but rather because of the oversupply of testosterone. This testosterone makes them feel powerful and important.

And that there is a description of the worst kind of human I have ever come across as a charity CEO: the loaded ego. They make their donations with lots of strings attached and throw their weight around. They like red carpets and ass kissing. If you catch yourself doing this, take a long hard look at yourself, then give yourself an uppercut.

The answers

In summary, human beings are designed to be generous on the most part. But it is really only because it’s a selfish aspect of survival and self-satisfaction. We are born with a level of neural empathy. This is turbocharged when young humans are nurtured to be generous by the rest of the herd. All this doing good feels fabulous and humans love a bit of hormonal sizzle in their veins. As they mature, people start to align with values to live by and live in a context which informs their decision-making. Only when there is an imbalance of chest beating hormones does the human condition produce the kind of person who gives just to look good.

With all this in mind, the secret then is to nurture our young people to see generosity as a normal and necessary part of life and to encourage chest beaters to run off that extra testosterone on a long jog…to Perth.

Lucy Bloom is a conference speaker and author. She speaks on broad themes including courage, kindness, failure, risk, generosity and fun. You can start a conversation about booking Lucy right here.


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