Written by Maia Szalavitz.
Although seeing or hearing about suffering children makes most people uncomfortable, that distress is not what drives them to dig into their pockets and donate. The reasons people decide to be altruistic, it turns out, may be slightly more selfish.
In the study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers found that people are more likely to give when they think it will make them feel better. They donate, for example, when they feel hope about putting smiles on those expectant and suffering faces. And that hope, or similar feel-good sensations, are driven by the brain‘s reward systems.
Researchers — and charities — have long known that putting a specific face on an abstract problem opens hearts and wallets. Josef Stalin once said that while one death is a tragedy, a million is merely a statistic. Studies have since found that quantifying the size of a disaster or particular need paradoxically lowers giving, while presenting a single story without explicit numbers is more likely to prompt a desire to help.
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