As the festive season gets closer, opportunities for kindness are everywhere. From that extra hour of shopping to find the perfect present, to donations that provide Christmas dinner for a stranger, we see many examples of people going out of their way to benefit others. But why are we kind? Against a history of “survival of the fittest”, it can seem strange that humans evolved this tendency to be altruistic.

My PhD in the Social Decision Lab, working with Dr Dan Campbell-Meiklejohn, uses techniques from psychology and neuroscience to better understand altruism and the factors which make us more or less likely to give. Combined with research from labs across the world, we can identify a number of possible motivations for kindness.

Relieving suffering

Hearing about other people’s suffering can make us distressed because we empathise with those people. By being altruistic, for example, donating to a charity that relieves the suffering, we can remove the distress for both ourselves and others. One of our current projects looks at what factors affect the level of distress we feel when we hear others are in need. For example, are we more distressed (and so likely to help) when we hear about a single person suffering, compared to a large group?

Increasing happiness

Just as we feel sad when others are suffering, making other people happy with kind acts can also improve our mood. Buying gifts, nice surprises and kind gestures can all make the giver, as well as the receiver, feel good.

Reciprocity

Often the people we help are people we know, for example, friends, family or colleagues. This creates an opportunity for reciprocal kindness or “returning the favour”. This cooperation is vital for groups to function, as working together often leads to the best outcomes for everyone.

Feeling kind

Most people would agree that being kind is a good thing so being kind to others can make us feel good about ourselves. This is particularly true when our good deed is observed by others but also when it’s anonymous.

“Warm glow” in the brain

These different motivations for kindness are probably all at play in different ways, depending on the type of altruistic act. It can be hard to tell why someone is being kind just based on studying their behaviour (something we are trying to do in another ongoing project!). However, by using neuroscience techniques we can get extra insight.

Our recent study looked at brain activity during different types of generous giving, including situations with an opportunity to benefit from reciprocity as well as anonymous donations. We saw that both types of giving activated the reward network of the brain, suggesting that regardless of the specific motivation, there is a warm glow of kindness.