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the future of work

As the child of immigrants from Europe, the Thanksgiving holiday remained a foreign concept to me growing up, but over the years I developed an appreciation for this time of year, which seems to bring out people's generous side.

This generosity became readily apparent earlier this month when a fire broke out in my Toronto neighbourhood, displacing 11 people, including several international students visiting Toronto with no family nearby. Monica Gupta, a concerned neighbour quickly mobilized support, starting a GoFundMe page that raised more than $300 in the first hour. Local businesses, including Loblaw and Fiesta Farms, an independent grocery store, also kicked in donations.

Asked about her motivation, she described her response as an "automatic reaction."

"I remember hearing that these girls need coats and socks, and here I was at home with coats and socks. I just knew I could do this," Ms. Gupta recalled.

Still, what motivates people to act generously in their personal or professional lives remains complex. Why do some volunteer to stay late at work or help their colleagues without any obvious personal gain, while others don't?

Cendri Hutcherson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus, recently put this question to the test. In a study published in the journal Neuron, she and co-authors Benjamin Bushong from Harvard and Antonio Rangel at the California Institute of Technology, set out to discover why being altruistic is so easy for some and so difficult for others.

"There is a big debate in psychology and economics about whether we are really, at heart, kind of selfish," explained Dr. Hutcherson.

Why, thought Dr. Hutcherson, do some people give spare change to a person on the street or donate their time to help someone in a business context, even when they know they'll be unlikely to benefit? She and her fellow scientists had participants lie in brain scanners (functional MRIs) while asking them questions about how much money they would keep or sacrifice to benefit a total stranger – a variation of the Dictator Game. Then they created a computer simulation capable of determining when someone would make an altruistic choice versus a selfish one.

What she uncovered was that the brain engaged in multiple, complex tradeoffs when determining whether or not to be generous. For example, participants asked themselves how costly the act of generosity would be in terms of money and effort required. That led to a second equation: How much would it help the stranger? A third equation weighed both those questions against each other.

As expected, people's responses varied tremendously. Many people never gave up a single dollar, even if the tradeoff would be mutually beneficial. However, they did discover that those who made a generous choice to start with found it easier to keep making them, meaning it took them less time to make that decision and there was less activation in the brain. People who started off behaving selfishly took more time to justify their generous decisions. So practising generosity appears to make it easier.

Before jumping to conclusions about your colleagues, Dr. Hutcherson said that generosity or selfishness is not necessarily an inherent characteristic, but rather a person's current mindset. Merely asking test subjects to imagine the impact on the recipients of their generosity made the decision-making process considerably easier.

Also, people are not perfect decision-makers, she explained.

"The brain is a little noisy. Our neurons fire a tiny bit randomly, so we sometimes make mistakes," Dr. Hutcherson said. Sometimes, people act selfishly in haste, when they would probably be generous if they took more time to weigh the decision. Certainly in the study, the subjects said they felt happier when they knew their selfish decisions were reversible.

"If you asked someone for help and they say no, you don't know if they regret it. Give them some slack," she added.

So as that warm and fuzzy Thanksgiving feeling fades until next year, rest assured that selfish decisions taken by colleagues may not be indicative of their true nature, and hope that between now and next year, they'll have more time to practise random acts of selflessness.

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