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The warm glow of kindness

Jo Cutler, PhD student on the research

The next time you have the urge to pick an argument with your neighbour over their untidy front garden or their choice of music at 4am, try smiling at them instead.

Even if you don’t feel they deserve it, and you may have no hope of getting anything quite so nice back, simple kind gestures can be enough to activate parts of your brain that will, quite literally, give you a warm glow.

Psychologists at the University of Sussex undertook a major new review of studies that looked at what happens inside our brains when we act out of genuine altruism (when there’s nothing in it for us) and strategic kindness (when we have something to be gained).

By examining the fMRI brain scans relating to more than 1000 people making kind decisions, they found that, while both sorts of kindness activate the reward networks of our brains (including a region known as the striatum), altruistic acts with no hope of personal benefit led to other regions of the brain (the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex) becoming even more active.

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

“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.

 “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.”

While the study shows what was happening in the cerebral cortex of individuals performing kind acts, the study’s co-author, PhD student Jo Cutler, points out that the altruistic behaviour of others can also be infectious.

“A key theory in neuroscience suggests that seeing someone else show an emotion automatically activates the same areas of our brain as if we experienced that emotion for ourselves.

“A kind act to make someone who is sad feel better can also make us feel good – partly because we feel the same relief they do and partly because we are putting something right,” she adds.

“Although this effect is especially powerful for people we are close to, it can even apply to humanitarian problems such as poverty or climate change. Getting engaged with charities that tackle these issues provides a way to have a positive impact, which in turn improves mood.”

In terms of neighbourly relations, the outcome is almost always good. They might even turn down the volume.


By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Friday, 15 February 2019