CAMBRIDGE, England — There is a saying that “generosity begins at home,” but it might be as close as the beat of our own hearts. Could there be a physical reason for charitable acts? A new study shows that being generous may actually have a physiological foundation for some folks.
The research, presented by scientists from Anglia Ruskin University, indicates that kind-hearted people might actually have a stronger connection to their own hearts, making them want to give to others.
“Despite clear biological and economic advantages of acting in self-interest, people consistently make decisions that benefit others, at a cost to themselves,” says study co-author Richard Piech, a senior lecturer in psychology at the university, in a release. “Our study suggests that selfless acts may be influenced by signals from the body that reach the brain.”
To test their theory, researchers had participants play a computer game in which they were asked to make choices about sharing money with themselves, or with another participant who was a stranger to them. The charitable choices they made during the game would directly impact the amount of actual money they and the other participant would receive at the conclusion of the study. This setup mimics real-life charitable situations, in which there is often no personal relationship between donor and recipient.
As part of the study, participants were also tasked with detecting their own heartbeat. First, each had his or her heartbeat recorded by electrocardiogram (EKG). The participants then listened to a series of sounds that were either in sync or out of sync with their own heartbeats. They were not allowed to feel their own pulse while they were listening to the sounds.
Participants who were better at selecting the sounds in harmony with their own heartbeat had better awareness of their own internal body states. Researchers say this skill was quite varied among participants.
The results showed a direct correlation between the gift of detecting one’s own heartbeat and generosity with others. Those who were 10% better at detecting their own heartbeat donated an average of $7 to other participants.
Researchers caution that this is the first study to link something physiological to generosity, but it merits more research.
“Our results showed an association between sensitivity to heartbeats and generosity, but more research is needed to understand why this relationship exists,” says study co-author Jane Aspell, a senior lecturer in psychology at the university.
“It may be that an emotionally-charged situation – such as deciding whether or not to give money away – causes a change in heartbeat,” she concludes. “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.”
The research is published in the journal Scientific Reports.