DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is the season for giving. But you might wonder what motivates us to be generous. Do we feel pressure because it’s this time of year and others around us are doing it? Well, new research suggests no. The impulse to be generous is actually hardwired into our brains. Here’s NPR’s Shankar Vedantam.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: When Lara Aknin was about 8 she offered her 4-year-old brother a business proposition. She asked him to trade his dimes for her nickels.
LARA AKNIN: I used to trick him by telling him that dimes were worth less than nickels or nickels were worth more than dimes because coins were valued based on their size.
VEDANTAM: When her brother accepted the deal, Aknin did what many 8 year olds might do.
AKNIN: I would trade him a whole bunch of nickels for dimes essentially allowing me to double my value and would go march off and buy myself a lot of candy.
VEDANTAM: Aknin recognized that what she was doing was not very nice. But the reason she did it was the same reason lots of people cut corners.
AKNIN: I was after gaining some more money and I thought, you know, having this extra disposable income would allow me to spend the money on myself and make me happier.
VEDANTAM: What Aknin didn’t realize is that this intuition, the intuition that spending money on herself would make her happier, this intuition wasn’t quite right. Aknin is now a psychologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada. In several research experiments she’s found something that might have shocked her 8-year-old self. Her big mistake was not in stealing money from her brother – well, that was pretty mean – but the real mistake psychologically speaking was in spending her ill-gotten gains on herself.
AKNIN: Perhaps I would’ve been happier or at least our research suggests that I would have been happier if I spent that extra cash on him.
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