KU News Release

Oct. 6, 2010
Contact: Brendan M. Lynch, University Relations, (785) 864-8855

Researchers win grant to shed light on underpinnings of generosity

More Information

LAWRENCE — In an era of economic suffering, it might be an ideal time to discover more about generosity. What sparks the spirit of giving toward one’s fellow human beings, and how can generosity be boosted?

Now, a team of researchers at the University of Kansas will delve into the behavioral, cognitive and neural causes of generosity with support from a two-year, $150,000 grant from the University of Notre Dame’s Science of Generosity Initiative.

Omri Gillath, assistant professor of social psychology at KU, said that generosity is little understood. Gillath will spearhead the research along with KU psychology professor Ruth Ann Atchley and KU economics professor Mohamed El-Hodiri.

“We’re trying to understand how we can enhance generosity,” Gillath said. “While doing it, we’re also trying to understand what generosity is, and what its underlying mechanisms are. We’ll start out by defining generosity as the virtue of giving to other people — whether it is money or other resources such as time. From there, we’ll try to understand the factors effecting generous behavior.”

Using questionnaires, cognitive tasks and advanced technology, Gillath and his team aim to discover the thought processes and neural activity linked with generosity.

“We’re going to ask people what they think about generosity, and see what kind of generous behavior they exhibit,” said the KU researcher. “We’re also trying to find links between how people experience their close relationships and how they behave with their family and friends, and the way they behave in situations when one can be generous to others or not.”

Gillath said that he expects to reveal an association between generosity and an individual’s sense of personal security.

“What we’re hoping to find is a connection between how you feel with those close to you — what we call ‘attachment figures’ — and how generous you are,” said Gillath. “The more secure you are, we expect the more generous you will be. If you feel safe, loved and helped, you’ll be more likely to help and give to others. Being secure allows you to not focus on your own troubles, and instead focus on the troubles of other people.”

The KU team also will monitor changes in the brain’s electrophysiological activity and blood flow as functions of generous behavior.

“On the Lawrence campus, we’re going to use ‘event-related potentials,’ ” Gillath said. “We’re going to put electrodes on the subjects’ heads and measure the electricity on their skulls. We’re also going to perform functional magnetic resonance imaging. We will bring people to the KU Medical Center in Kansas City to look deeper into their brains as they engage in generosity-related tasks. One technology gives us a better temporal resolution — a look at what is happening every second — and the other technology gives us a better spatial resolution — or where exactly in the brain the activity is taking place, and which neural systems are involved in what way.”

For Gillath, who recently won the Caryl Rusbult Close Relationships Early Career Award from the Relationship Researchers Interest Group within the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, the research into generosity is made more meaningful because of its potential to benefit philanthropy as well as science.

“This grant focuses on values, and it’s meant not just to progress science but to make this a better world,” Gillath said. “That makes us feel really generous about what we’re doing. We’re not trying just to understand something, but we’re trying to have an effect on society.”

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