A new U.K. study finds that acts of altruism, even those done with no hope of receiving anything in return, activate the reward network in the brain.

Researchers from the University of Sussex conducted a major analysis of 36 existing studies showing the fMRI brain scans of 1,150 people making altruistic decisions.

For the first time, they split the analysis between what happens in the brain when people act out of genuine kindness (when there’s nothing in it for them) and when they act with strategic kindness (when there is something to be gained).

Many individual studies have hinted that generosity activates the reward network of the brain but the new study is the first to evaluate these studies as a whole and then split the results into two types of kindness: altruistic and strategic.

“This major study sparks questions about people having different motivations to give to others: clear self-interest versus the warm glow of altruism,” said Dr. Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, the study’s lead and Director of the Social Decision Laboratory at the University of Sussex.

The findings show that although strategic kindness was linked to more obvious activation in the brain’s reward network, genuine kindness activated this area as well. In fact, the researchers found that some brain regions (located in the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex) were even more active during altruistic generosity, indicating that there is something unique about being kind with no thoughts of receiving anything in return.

“The decision to share resources is a cornerstone of any cooperative society. We know that people can choose to be kind because they like feeling like they are a ‘good person.’ but also that people can choose to be kind when they think there might be something ‘in it’ for them such as a returned favour or improved reputation,” Campbell-Meiklejohn says.

“Some people might say that ‘why’ we give does not matter, as long as we do. However, what motivates us to be kind is both fascinating and important. If, for example, governments can understand why people might give when there’s nothing in it for them, then they can understand how to encourage people to volunteer, donate to charity or support others in their community.”

Campbell-Meiklejohn and Ph.D. student Jo Cutler conducted the research. They published their findings in the journal NeuroImage.

“The finding of different motivations for giving raises all sorts of questions, including what charities and organisations can learn about what motivates their donors. Some museums, for example, choose to operate a membership scheme with real strategic benefits for their customers, such as discounts. Others will ask for a small altruistic donation on arrival,” said Cutler.

“Organisations looking for contributions should think about how they want their customers to feel. Do they want them to feel altruistic, and experience a warm glow, or do they want them to enter with a transactional mind-set?”

“The same issues could also apply when we think about interactions between family, friends, colleagues or strangers on a one-to-one basis. For example, if after a long day helping a friend move house, they hand you a fiver, you could end up feeling undervalued and less likely to help again.”

“A hug and kind words however might spark a warm glow and make you feel appreciated. We found some brain regions were more active during altruistic, compared to strategic, generosity, so it seems there is something special about situations where our only motivation to give to others is to feel good about being kind.”

Source: University of Sussex