So Why Do We Give to Charity?

If, as Hobbes said, “every man is presumed to seek what is good for himself naturally, and what is just,
… accidentally1 , what place does philanthropy have in succession planning?

At first sight, they would certainly seem to be mutually exclusive. After all, succession is essentially about passing the ownership and control of capital from one generation to the next, typically within the family, whereas philanthropy is, by definition, about benefiting others. So why do people leave money to good causes?

It has long been said that pain and pleasure are the most basic drivers of human activity. It is no secret
that we are all (albeit to different degrees) drawn – sometimes irresistibly – to things that give us pleasure, and avoid those that cause us pain. Of course, we will not be around to take real time pleasure from the effects of our charitable legacies but we can imagine them, just as vividly as we can imagine how life will be when we win the lottery, or indeed an eternity in purgatory, or worse, if we fail do some such (hence all those medieval chantry chapels, and perhaps many a Victorian reading room and concert hall).

Research by Matthew Lieberman, Director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at UCLA, and colleagues has shown that we respond to social pain and pleasure in exactly the same way (that is, it “lights up2” the same parts of our brain) as we do to physical pain. As Lieberman puts it in his  compelling, and engagingly written, book, Social3, “fairness tastes like chocolate”. Perhaps that is what drives gifts in gratitude for the acts of others: they looked after my loved one, so it’s only fair that…

Moreover, Lieberman and others4 have shown that altruistic giving also shows increased activity in what he to as the brain’s “reward system”, ie the part that uses dopamine (said by some to be the most addictive substance in the world) to make us feel good. Thus, he argues, while we are undoubtedly wired for self-interest (pace Richard Dawkins), we are also wired to be interested in the welfare of others as an end in itself.

Interestingly, the economist Adam Smith, more famous for his comment in that “It is not from the
benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard for their own self interest.5, came to much the same conclusion, if not the neuro-chemical evidence for it, more than 250 years ago:

“How selfish ever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.6

However broadly the earlier statement has been interpreted, the two do not, of course, contradict. The
fact that the baker generally expects to be paid for his loaf, does not mean that he would see us starve were we unable to do so (although perfectly good food going to landfill does make you wonder!)

Continuing his exploration of the why of all this, Lieberman goes on to describe research by psychologist
Carsten De Dreu and others7 which appears to show that higher levels of oxytocin (the hormone that
initiates the dopamine fuelled feel good factor), increases our generosity not only toward members
of our own in-group – to people like us – but also to strangers, although it appears to promote hostility
toward already disliked groups. So, inviting us to give to those we dislike may very well produce a hostile
response (watch out chuggers!), but everyone else is fair game? If so, it may pay fund raisers to consider
more who we dislike than who we may identify with.

But there is more to it even than that. Lieberman goes on to describe how, as a young man, he found
himself watching a TV infomercial one evening that was soliciting donations to aid the starving in Africa. He had seen many such appeals before and never picked up the phone. Indeed, the pain these films invoked in him had often caused him to change channels – so easy to do with a remote and 200 other channels to choose from. Yet, on this occasion, despite being broke (“I needed more money, not less.”) and unhappy with his life generally, he found himself compelled to give. So how does that work? Here again, Adam Smith got much of the way there in the 18th Century. This again from The Theory of
Moral Sentiments8:

Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. … It is by the imagination that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. … It is by our own senses alone, not those of his, which our imaginations copy. By the imagination we place ourself in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.

It turns out that we do indeed work out what another is suffering (or enjoying) in part by taking what our own senses tell us and creating mental images of what might be going on in others’ minds (Smith’s “imagination9). We are also, it seems, designed to mimic what we see others do. Just as if you fold your arms, or legs, in a meeting others are likely to follow suit, we also mimic each others’ facial muscle movements – and those are the muscles we use to convey emotion10; pull the face and you feel the emotion11. Feeling another’s pain can be incredibly powerful but, as Leiberman recounts, it may just as well drive you away as to come to their aid. Something more is needed; the so-called empathic

Human babies are hard wired to evoke it in their mothers, and the process starts when they first look
into each others’ faces. The septal region in the prefrontal cortex of the brain has been shown to play a
significant role in the mother’s empathic response to her child, and Lieberman argues that it likely does so in all our empathic responses, although quite how it does so requires further research.

Other research has shown that mindful awareness practice leads to greater development of the prefrontal cortex, and that has been shown to be related to increased emotional control, response flexibility and empathic response12. In the long-term, charities might encourage us all to take up such practices, as they should make us all more likely to give. (Personally, I would teach them as a basic life skill in all our schools. I believe it would improve communication, decision making and conflict management, not to mention reducing the “attraction” of drugs, self-harm and suicide – but that is another article). Until then, something else is needed.

Strangely, probably the best intuitive invokers of empathic response are fraudsters, con-men, people
you might see as socio-, or even psycho-, pathic – in any event, as not caring that they cause harm to others – but who seem to understand just how to use all that social circuitry (well, at least up to the response part) to considerable advantage. How do they do it?

In the beginning, they listen rather than talking. Listening connects. Listening engenders trust. They get
inside our heads and emotions, work out what drives us, what concerns us. They make us feel heard, our
emotions understood, our world view shared. They may not become “one of us”, but they certainly stop being “one of them”, and we now know that is enough. Then they start to share their own story. They draw us in, as they were (seemingly) drawn in by us, and invite us to weave our story into theirs. Still they don’t tell. They ask. And we give. And they are gone. Then they use our social pain to protect themselves; they know most of us – those they choose to prey on – will find the pain of admitting that we were conned unbearable, and will likely explain away our losses (to ourself and others) in some other way.

Stories are key. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio argues that our inner stories are where our sense of
self comes from13, psychologist Jerome Bruner that becoming involved in each other’s narratives is how we build cohesive communities14. Somehow, stories seem to bypass the analytical parts of our brain (which are designed to judge, criticize, debate and argue), and go straight to our social circuitry, drawing us in, making us want to be part of the narrative, making us want a role in the unfolding drama15. That is why they are so important in my own work helping families build and maintain trust, communication and harmony down the generations.

Part of that work involves exploring the family’s story with them. Who are they? Where do they come
from? What do they stand for? What keeps them together? Why do they choose to collectivise their
wealth? What is it for?: What are their goals, their dreams, their aspirations? And so on. So, for them,
succession planning” is about much more than passing economic wealth from one generation to the next. It is about developing all of their capital – be it financial, human, intellectual, social or spiritual – collectively, harmoniously and cohesively over generations. Financially, they have more than they need to meet their wants and needs. Of course, there is a focus on making sure that continues. For some, that may be enough – though history will likely have them back in clogs in three generations. Those families that manage to “go on”, as a client of mine was fond of putting it, tend to look to a broader horizon, to what they can do in the world16. They are open to the empathic response  within them and, when they find it, they do what wealth creators do best: they act.

So, if you would harvest some of that capital for your own cause, what should you do?

Be like the con-man. Don’t expect your “mark” to come to you. Go to them. Listen. If that does not work,
keep on listening until they feel heard. Don’t worry, they will let you know when that happens. Become part of their story by being an agency through which they can achieve their goals, rather than trying to persuade them to help you achieve yours. Then start to weave your own story into theirs…


1 Hobbes, T. (1969/1651). Leviathan (part iii). Scolar Press. Aldershot, England.
2 “Light up” in the sense of showing up on a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan. When an area of the brain is in use, blood flow there increases. fMRI measures blood oxygen , and so blood flow, indicating relative activity in different areas of the brain.
3 Lieberman, M. D. (2013). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
4 Lieberman cites work by Jorge Moll and colleagues at the National Institutes of Health.
5 Smith, A. (1776). An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. W Strachan and T. Cadell. London.
6 Smith, A. (2009/1790). The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part 1, Section 1, Chapter 1. 6th edition , with introduction by Amartya Sen. Penguin Book. London.  The last two editions of The Theory of Moral Sentiments post date The Wealth of Nations.
7 De Dreu, C.K., Greer, L.L., Van Kleef, G.A., Shalvi, S., & Handgraaf, M.J. (2011). Oxytocin promotes ethnocentrism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(4), 1262-1266; Kosfeld, M., Heinrichs, M., Zak, P.J., Fischbacher, U., & Fehr, E. (2005). Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature, 435(7042), 673-676.
8 See note 5
9 Ramachandran, V. (2003). The Emerging Mind: The Reith lectures 2003. Profile Books. London.
10 Iacoboni, M. (2008). Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others. Picador. New York.
11 Ekman, P. & Frisen, W.V. (2003) Unmasking the Face: A guide to recognizing emotions from facial clues.  I. Malor Books. Cambridge, MA.
12 Siegel, D.J. (2007). The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being. WW Norton & Co. New York.  Mental Health Foundation (2010), Mindfulness Report,
13 Damasio, A. (2010) When Self comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. William Heinemann. London.
14 Bruner, J. (2002). Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life. Harvard University Press. London.
15 Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2008). Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck. Arrow Books. London.
16 See, for example, Jaffe, T. (2013). Good Fortune: Building A hundred Year Family Enterprise. Wise Counsel Research Associates. Milton, Ma.

First published in Philanthropy Impact Magazine: 5 – SPRING 2014 48 – 50.


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