When Ted Turner donated $1 billion to the United Nations in 1997, he made headlines around the world. Today, he is known not only as a billionaire and founder of CNN, but also as a philanthropist and someone invested in making the world a better place.
Many people give away their money or time with no expectation of benefits in return. Now some scientists believe they may be one step closer to unlocking the biological secret behind generosity
A study published this week in the journal Public Library of Science suggests that a chemical in the body may be responsible for this behavior. Researchers found that subjects in the experiment who were given a nasal spray dose of oxytocin, a hormone that acts on the brain, were willing to give away 80 percent more money compared to those taking a placebo nasal spray.
"There are no good models to explain why people give away so much money and so many resources," said study author Paul Zak, a professor of economics and director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California.
"Some people give away money for social status or to impress friends, but many people give away $100 or $1,000 anonymously to someone they don't even know," he said. "Why do we do that? What drives us to care for other people?"
The answer to those questions may lie with our ability to empathize with others -- to put ourselves in another's shoes and to feel what others are feeling.
In 2005, individuals in the United States donated $200 billion to charity and more than 65 million people volunteered to help charities. When asked why they gave away their money and time to help strangers, 96 percent said they felt compassion toward others.
"Charitable giving is driven by empathy," said Zak. "We are a socially connected species."
And this empathy may be driven in part by the effects of the body's own oxytocin on the brain, Zak's research suggests.
Stephanie Brown, an assistant professor of general medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School, agrees.
"This is one of the first studies to suggest that the effect of oxytocin on helping behavior is dependent on certain social cues," she said.
But oxytocin alone is unlikely to make people any more generous. "There has to be trust or empathy as a moderator to determine if oxytocin is going to have an effect," Brown said.
To test the role of empathy, Zak and his colleagues had participants play the ultimatum game. Participants were divided into teams of two, and one subject in each pair received $10. The participant with the money was then asked to offer some amount of this money to their partner whom he or she did not know and could not see.
The second person could either choose to accept the offer, in which case the money was split as agreed upon, or reject the offer, in which case both participants received nothing.
"This game forces the person with $10 to think about how much the other person needs," said Zak. "You really have to take into account others' behaviors and feelings."
Researchers found that when participants were given oxytocin through a nasal spray, participants playing the ultimatum game were 80 percent more generous in their offers to split the money.
"People left the lab with less money," said Zak. "But they weren't necessarily unhappy.