The Science of Generosity: Gift-Giving and Oxytocin

If we’re honest, Santa isn’t the only one with a list.

As we approach the end of the year and the plethora of holiday celebrations and family gatherings, many of us keep a collection of lists, some on paper and some in the back of our minds. We make lists of gifts to buy, cards to send, and parties to go to. Many of us, if we felt like confessing, might admit to keeping darker lists: gifts we’re not buying, cards we’re not sending, and excuses for the parties we’re not attending.

We do the math of generosity. We measure what we have to give by what we have received or what we owe. We plan our shopping and sending accordingly. When we go to buy gifts, we calculate whether we’re giving gifts worth more or less than what that person might give us. We count up our relational worth and we factor in the exchanges of gifts over the years and who might have come out with the financial edge.

Some of us do this with co-workers and neighbors too. We keep a spare candle or coffee mug around just in case that co-worker who is also sort of a friend decides to give you a picture frame or a gift card.

This can also happen on larger levels as we sort out where to give end-of year gifts or we do the math on where we might invest some charity or kindness. We measure what matters and maybe factor in the benefits.

In The Moral Molecule, Paul J. Zak recounts a set of experiments he conducted to learn about the science of generosity. There’s a lot for us to learn from Zak’s work on storytelling and empathy and how that changes the chemistry in our bodies. But this season, his work has me thinking about the way we give and receive gifts.

Zak developed an experiment using a Trust game to see how people respond to the invitation to give: One set of participants is given a sum of money and they are told it can triple when they give it away. They are also told about another set of participants who will have the chance to give some of that money back.

It’s a scientific gamble on generosity.

Zak’s work tests the conventional wisdom and economic theories that people will often act in self-preservation, particularly when money or resources are involved. In addition to charting the behavior of different participants, Zak traces the levels of oxytocin moving through people’s blood when they give or don’t give.  Oxytocin is the hormone we normally associate with childbirth but it shows up whenever humans connect to each other through affection or trust. It’s a short-lived but effective reward our bodies give us and enables us to do more together than just survive.

In several iterations of the Trust game, Zak finds that when people choose each other over themselves, they are chemically rewarded for it.

Since we are about to enter into a season of the Trust Game known as the holidays, it’s worth letting the science guide us.

The good news is that both science and the religions of the world can all affirm that giving selflessly is in our own best interests.

We can give the coffee mug whether they do or not. Write the check whether they send a souvenir in return. Maybe even make the phone call whether they’ve earned it or not.

Whether or not the other side of the gift equation reciprocates, or whether all the math checks out, everything we give away runs through our blood and washes us in chemicals and greater sums.