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Study Suggests Biological Link to Generosity

Study Suggests Biological Link to Generosity

New research suggests altruistic people are literally better at “listening to their own heart,” a skill that appears to be associated with selfless behavior.

Anglia Ruskin University and Stockholm University investigators discovered that “kind-hearted” people are generous and more in touch with their own cardiac pulse or heartbeat. The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, is the first to find a possible physiological reason why some people are more charitable than others.

Participants were asked to take part in a computer-based game that involved repeated choices to share sums of money between themselves and another participant that they hadn’t met.

Their choices affected how much real money they and the other participant received at the end of the study. The game has similarities to real-life charitable giving, in which recipients are not personally known to donors.

They also took part in a heartbeat detection task, which involved having their own heartbeat (ECG) recorded. The participants then listened, without feeling their pulse, to a series of sounds that were either in time or out of time with their heartbeats.

Those who were better at judging if the sounds were in time or not were better at detecting their internal body states. Performance on this task varied markedly between individuals.

Researchers found that participants’ monetary generosity directly increases with their ability to detect their own heartbeat. Those who were on average 10 percent better at detecting their heartbeat gave away an additional £5 (about six dollars) to the other participants.

“Despite clear biological and economic advantages of acting in self-interest, people consistently make decisions that benefit others, at a cost to themselves. Our study suggests that selfless acts may be influenced by signals from the body that reach the brain,” said Richard Piech, Ph.D., a co-author of the study.

Another co-author, Jane Aspell, Ph.D., added, “Our results showed an association between sensitivity to heartbeats and generosity, but more research is needed to understand why this relationship exists.

“It may be that an emotionally charged situation, such as deciding whether or not to give money away, causes a change in heartbeat.

“This bodily change may then bias decision-making towards the generous option in those people who are better at detecting their heartbeats. These findings suggest that, in some sense, people ‘listen to their heart’ to guide their selfless behaviors.”

Source: Anglia Ruskin University

Study Suggests Biological Link to Generosity

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Study Suggests Biological Link to Generosity. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 16 Nov 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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