By Leonard Glickman
Chief Executive Officer
FJC – A Foundation of Philanthropic Funds
For those of you who read blogs about philanthropy and charity (you’re reading this, aren’t you?), maybe, like me, you’ve been struck by a few of the articles about altruism and giving and human biology. Since we are deep in the middle of the “Giving Season,” I decided to look further into this subject and see whether giving is indeed a unique human trait.
Anyone who has a pet—especially dogs, fish, and reptiles (cats seem to do their own things in their own ways and full disclosure: I have all of the above and more)—knows that they don’t like to share. Pet food is gobbled up or protected like it’s the last meal they’ll ever have. Watch a squirrel at a bird feeder and he will devour all the seed, leaving none for a later time or for another squirrel. Sure, a dog will retrieve a ball and bring it back, but his sole motivation is to continue the game for his sake. Our Golden Retriever decides for herself when it is time to play and when it is time to stop—she’ll just run after the ball and then suddenly lie down and take a nap. Even a hunter’s retriever has to be trained and rewarded for fetching game and bringing it to his owner in one piece. (This is about philanthropy, not animal behavior per se. So, all you cat lovers about to write me about your felines killing mice and bringing them home to you, please hold your calls and letters. I know all about this behavior, but I’m not convinced the cat is being altruistic.)
With this in mind, I wasn’t all that surprised to find that human beings do seem to have a unique biology that is hard-wired to give. Recent studies have shown that people from every socioeconomic level get a “warm glow” from giving to others. The journal Science published an article in June 2007 about a team of economists and psychologists who found that donating money to charity activates the same area of the brain associated with pleasures such as food and sex. This feeling was especially pronounced when the giving was voluntary. They even found “mandatory” giving, such as a tax, produced such a feeling, but they admitted this part of the study was simulated. (There’s a big difference between simulated paying of a tax described as benefiting the public and paying a tax to a government with which one is not so happy.)
These studies were not just subjective observations. The researchers used highly advanced technology. They used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines to watch the brain react to various giving situations. One expert in neuroeconomics (who knew there was such a thing?) stated, “It’s mysterious that human beings among all mammals are so hyper-social that our brains are wired to help other people, even strangers. There’s very little evidence that other animals have that capacity.” Sure, I thought about the amazing and heroic acts of a few animals who, without training, selflessly put their lives on the line to rescue someone, but that’s not something we see or hear about every day.
One of the study’s authors, Ulrich Mayr, called “pure altruism” a result of “evolutionary brain pleasure areas.”
Reading that, I thought, “Hmm, other species have brain pleasure areas.” When I ask my Golden Retriever, Shayna, if she wants to go for a walk or a ride, her unconditional love/tail wagging routine surely is triggered by some kind of happy feeling. By contrast, my calling her name with my deep you’re-in-trouble-now voice (after I spy that half-eaten plate of food that was full a second ago) surely triggers an unhappy feeling. Her tail drops, she looks the other way, and tries to walk slowly away from me.
About two months ago, Science Daily published a study about what most primatologists believe to be our closest relative, the chimpanzee. (Note to the reader again—this is about philanthropy. This is not about evolution or whether the bonobo’s DNA makes it a closer relative to humans than a chimp’s. Please hold your calls). Researchers at the Primate Research Institute and Wildlife Research Center of Kyoto University found that chimps altruistically help conspecifics (members of the same species) even in the absence of direct personal gain or immediate reciprocation. Interestingly, the researchers found that chimpanzees will help another chimpanzee, but only if their fellow chimpanzee asks. Sounds like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Get.”
Yet the big difference between humans and chimpanzees (philanthropically speaking) is that humans will give even if not specifically asked.
So, in this example, pure altruism is uniquely human. Our altruistic behaviors occur even though we may not receive any direct benefits from our action. It may simply be explained as “it feels good to give.”
Earlier, I mentioned the work of neuroeconomics. Even Microsoft doesn’t understand this word and is underlining it in red as I write it. Be that as it may, I read an interesting chapter from Neuroeconomics: Decision Making and the Brainentitled “Neuroeconomics of Charitable Giving and Philanthropy” (Mayr, Harbaugh, and Tankersley). In sum, these researchers found “the evidence from empirical and experimental studies supported the existence of a purely altruistic motive for charitable giving.” At the end of the chapter, the researchers posed an interesting postulation—perhaps that warm glow feeling or reward we experience when giving serves as “a primary learning reinforcer, which over time generalizes to provide pure altruistic rewards. Praising toddlers for sharing their toys might deliver the warm-glow benefit, which then promotes future altruistic behavior even when no one is looking.”
So there you have it. More proof that everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten (Robert Fulghum’s famous book). First on Mr. Fulghum’s list?“SHARE EVERYTHING.”
So go ahead and share. Give as generously as you can.
After all, you’re only human.
Leonard Glickman is the Chief Executive Officer of FJC – A Foundation of Philanthropic Funds. FJC manages over $200 million in assets and administers donor-advised funds, fiscal sponsorships, and an Agency Loan Fund. Prior to his work with FJC, Mr. Glickman had twenty years of experience holding key positions in Congress and the Executive Branch and as the head of an international nonprofit organization. He was the Minority Staff Director on the Government Affairs Committee for the late U.S. Senator John Heinz, Press Secretary to U.S. Rep. Tom Ridge, the top career official at the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, and President and CEO of HIAS, Inc., an international refugee and immigrant services agency. Mr. Glickman is the author of numerous articles, has given live testimony to Congress, has appeared on national television programs, and is the recipient of numerous government and human rights awards and citations. He holds a Master’s Degree in International Relations from the American University in Washington, DC and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh. Mr. Glickman also has a Certificate in Non-Profit Management from Brookdale’s Department of Community Development and Business.