People tend to become more generous with age, particularly when it comes to helping strangers, according to a new study by researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
The findings, published in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, show that while older adults treat their family and friends the same as younger adults do, the elderly donate more to strangers than younger adults, even when there is little chance for reciprocation.
“Greater generosity was observed among senior citizens possibly because as people become older, their values shift away from purely personal interests to more enduring sources of meaning found in their communities,” said study leader Dr. Yu Rongjun from the Department of Psychology at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, as well as the Singapore Institute for Neurotechnology at NUS.
Research has shown that as people get older they spend more time volunteering, are more attentive to ecological concerns, and show less interest in getting rich. However, there is a lack of understanding of the core motive behind such altruistic behavior.
In the new study, the researchers sought to address this knowledge gap by looking at how social relationships with others influence how much older adults donate in comparison with younger adults.
The research, which was conducted from March 2016 to January 2017, involved 78 adults in Singapore: 39 older adults (average age 70) and 39 younger adults (average age 23).
The researchers used a framework known as social discounting to measure generosity levels. This framework is based on the principle that people treat close family and friends better than people they don’t know as well, and much better than total strangers.
The participants were asked to rate how close they were to people in their social environment, and the amount of money they would give to each respective person. Using a computational model, the researchers calculated the amount of money that the participants would be willing to give to another person as a function of social distance.
The findings show that both younger and older adults are equally generous to close family and friends. However, senior citizens are more generous to those who are more socially distant, such as total strangers, and the seniors’ level of generosity does not decrease with distance as quickly as that of the younger adults.
Furthermore, older adults are more likely to forgo their resources to strangers even when their generosity is unlikely to be reciprocated.
“In psychology, the motivation to contribute to the greater good is known as an ‘ego-transcending’ motivation,” said first author Dr. Narun Pornpattananangkul, a research fellow from the Department of Psychology at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
“In our earlier work, we found that there is an enhancement of this motivation after people received oxytocin, a hormone related to maternal love and trust.”
“In this study, we found a similar pattern of an ego-transcending motivation among the older adults, as if the older adults received oxytocin to boost their generosity,” he said. “We speculate that age-related changes at the neurobiological level may account for this change in generosity.”
To better understand how decision-making changes as we age, the research team is conducting further studies to examine the neural mechanisms underlying these shifts by using brain-imaging technologies.
Findings from these studies have the potential to be translated into effective intervention programs to promote healthy aging, and may help tackle age-related conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, which are often characterized by deficits in decision-making.
Source: National University of Singapore