The Science Behind Why We Get More Generous With Age

Your grandparents are more likely to donate to a stranger than you are.

Image Courtesy of Unsplash

A study conducted by researchers at the National University of Singapore found that people become more generous as they age, providing one possible explanation for why older people often seem more selfless than younger generations.

Previous research has already linked aging with more volunteering, greater concern for the environment and less materialism, but this new study stands out for an intriguing reason: it found that aging is linked to what psychologists call “ego transcending” motivations, or motivations that serve a greater good and offer no clear reward to the person doing the good deed.

In the study, 78 participants were asked to rate how close they were to people inside and outside their social circle, then state the amount of money they would give each person. (This measure is based on the psychological principle that humans are naturally more generous towards those who are closest to them and the least generous towards strangers.)

The researchers found that older adults (with an average age of 70) were more generous than the younger adults (with an average age of 23) as they moved to the outskirts of their social circle. They also discovered that the older adults were more generous with total strangers than the younger adults were.

Why we seem to become more altruistic as we age isn’t entirely clear, but the researchers have a theory. The results of this study mirrored the findings of a previous study, which found that people exhibited this same sort of selfless altruism when given oxytocin, a hormone associated with empathy, bonding and maternal love. Because of the similarities between the results of the two studies, Dr. Narun Pornpattananangkul, a researcher that worked on both, speculated in the new study’s press release that age-related changes in generosity may be the result of changes at the neurobiological level. In other words, we might produce or release more oxytocin as we age, making us more selfless later in life.

The study leader, assistant professor Yu Rongjun, also noted in the press release that, “Greater generosity was observed among senior citizens possibly because as people become older, their values shift away from purely personal interests to more enduring sources of meaning found in their communities.”

Developing a deeper understanding of this phenomenon, Rongjun said, could lead to more effective programs that support healthy aging and improve society as a whole.

Read more about the study here.