TDL Brief: The Psychology Behind Charity

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Dec 16, 2020

Benevolence is widespread. It can be easy to look at headlines and fixate on today’s hardships, but hopefully we can ground ourselves in knowing that the world is full of people who dedicate their lives to caring for others, who volunteer and donate with little in return, who make conscious efforts to help others even if in small ways.

The concept of charity as we know it originally developed in connection with religious institutions and notions of moral sanctity, but is now embedded in society-at-large. Charitable organizations make up a large portion of the non-profit sector. Our tax code allows tax deductions for donating. Through digital and mass media culture, our exposure to organizations in need of resources has skyrocketed. The ease in which we can donate, be it through a GoFundMe or quick Venmo in response to an Instagram call-to-action, ingrains charity into our daily routines. It can be overwhelming navigating how much to donate, what resources to give, and who to give them to. Yet this complex negotiation is a testament to the expansive nature of what it means to care for others as humans. 

Let’s go back to basics and take a deeper look into what motivates us to be charitable, and how an understanding of our cognitive processes can push us towards charitable behaviors.

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1. Helping others has been an evolutionary strength

By: Scientific American, Why We Help (November 2012)

When we learn about how we evolved as humans, and how species evolve in general, we typically hear the phrase “survival of the fittest”. Our evolution is framed as “dog-eat-dog” with much of the onus of survival on the individual and their strengths. But then what accounts for characteristics like altruism and humanitarianism? Why do we share with and care for people we might not even know, in addition to those around us? 

There are a few different hypotheses for how these tendencies came to be. One posited evolutionary mechanism of cooperation is reciprocity. Most of us are familiar with the saying “I scratch your back if you scratch mine”, or giving to others in hopes that the favor will be returned when we are in need.  Reciprocal generosity is seen in other species, like vampire bats, and demonstrates how sharing can create long-run individual survival benefits. Another hypothesis surrounds kin selection, where individuals with the tendency to care for their closely related kin potentially decrease their own fitness, while increasing the chances of reproduction and survival for others in their gene pool. By doing so, genetic material promoting cooperative behaviors is likely to be passed on. 

Additionally, when groups of family and neighbors help each other it can create growing spatial clusters of cooperators that out-compete non-cooperative individuals. Laboratory studies on yeast cultures demonstrate this mechanism, but it is easy to see the benefits of community support in our everyday lives. Evolutionary perspectives grant insight on why we are the way we are, and why helping others can play such a large part in human life.

2. Giving makes us happier and healthier

By: Greater Good Magazine, 5 Ways Giving Is Good for You (December 2010)

There is something uniquely rewarding about giving to others, even though we expend our own resources to do so. One study gave participants a sum of money and evaluated their responses to A) spending the money on themselves, and B) giving the money to another person. The researchers found that even though the participants predicted they would get more joy out of spending it on themselves, they actually had a stronger positive reaction when giving the money to someone else. 

Our neurochemistry supports this claim, as giving activates brain areas of pleasure and social relation. Giving also elicits a similar wave of endorphins to a “runner’s high”, which in this case is referred to as a “helper’s high”. These mental health benefits reverberate into our physical well-being, lowering stress levels and providing significant health benefits to the elderly and those with chronic illnesses.

3. We give more when we emotionally connect

By: Chicago Booth Review, How charities can get an edge (March 2020)

So, we’ve established some factors in why we give and the benefits of giving, in an evolutionary sense and in a more immediate individual sense. But in a time where the opportunities to donate seem endless, what draws us towards certain organizations rather than others? Experimental data shows that we are much more likely to respond to donation pleas that introduce a single person that would benefit from our help, rather than quantitative information on the impact of the charity. This phenomenon is otherwise known as the identifiable victim effect. Giving is often driven by our emotional responses and personal connections, rather than a rational deliberation of overall impact. 

Since our helping behaviors started on a more close-knit level (i.e. between family, friends, and neighbors), it makes sense that personal connection would trigger altruism. Amidst the mass media landscape, we intake more information than ever and are exposed to hardships across the globe. We respond with empathy to most news of devastation, but it can be hard to truly grasp the gravity of a situation that is foreign to you. In order for charity marketing to trigger an action-inducing level of empathy, they often must create a bridge between the audience and the cause itself.

4. When we give, it inspires others to give

By: The Guardian, The science behind why people give money to charity (May 2015)

Characteristics like kindness and generosity are driven by our deeply social tendencies. However, our charitable behaviors are highly influenced by external social factors as well. The altruism of the people around can push us towards giving, and alter the amount of time or resources we are willing to give. 

Studies show that we are more likely to donate to a cause if someone we know is asking for the donation; this includes family and friends, as well as prestigious names like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Charities can use these social influences to amass more funding. For example, if we use an online donation platform, we might be offered to input e-mail addresses of people we know in order to reach more potential donors. When someone receives an e-mail saying “Your friend _____ is asking for your help…”, they are more likely to donate. Additionally, if we are informed that the previous donor gave a large sum, we are more likely to donate a higher amount. So when you give, it’s not just your tangible contribution that has impact. It is also the precedent of generosity you set for those around you.

5. Giving fights powerlessness

By: The Decision Lab, Smart Giving for a Cognitively Saturated World: Nick Fitz and Ari Kagan

In today’s world, we are forced to navigate an increasing push towards individualism and rapidly growing sense of global interconnectedness, an often disorienting paradox. Amidst the pandemic, it can be especially difficult to process the loneliness of physical isolation paired with unending digital communication and information sharing. Further, it’s easy to become nihilistic amidst the 24/7 news cycle, inundating us with media on global hardships. When there are so many problems to tackle, and the problems themselves seem insurmountable, we can default to doing nothing.

However, finding meaningful ways to give can empower us against helplessness. When we are actively involved, rather than passively observing, it fosters a sense of connectedness and reminds us of our ability to contribute to change. One way to integrate giving into our lives is through Nick Fitz and Ari Kagan’s new app Momentum.  The app helps combat choice overload by hand-selecting vetted charities personalized to our priorities. Momentum then allows us to pair donations with our every day actions and major events. This way, every time we take an Uber we could automatically donate a small amount to climate action groups, or when we march for Black Lives Matter we could donate to racial justice organizations. There are many ways to contribute to change, but if you are one of many struggling to figure out how to do so, Momentum might be able to lend some guidance.


  1. Marsh, J., & Suttie, J. (2010, December 13). 5 Ways Giving Is Good for You. Greater Good Magazine.
  2. Nowak, M. A. (2012, November 1). Why We Help. Scientific American.
  3. Tamma, M. S. and F. (2015, March 23). The science behind why people give money to charity. The Guardian.
  4. The Decision Lab. (2020, October 29). Smart Giving for a Cognitively Saturated World: Nick Fitz and Ari Kagan
  5. Walton, A. (2020, March 25). How charities can get an edge. Chicago Booth Review.

About the Authors

Dan Pilat's portrait

Dan Pilat

Dan is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. Dan has a background in organizational decision making, with a BComm in Decision & Information Systems from McGill University. He has worked on enterprise-level behavioral architecture at TD Securities and BMO Capital Markets, where he advised management on the implementation of systems processing billions of dollars per week. Driven by an appetite for the latest in technology, Dan created a course on business intelligence and lectured at McGill University, and has applied behavioral science to topics such as augmented and virtual reality.

Sekoul Krastev's portrait

Dr. Sekoul Krastev

Sekoul is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. A decision scientist with a PhD in Decision Neuroscience from McGill University, Sekoul's work has been featured in peer-reviewed journals and has been presented at conferences around the world. Sekoul previously advised management on innovation and engagement strategy at The Boston Consulting Group as well as on online media strategy at Google. He has a deep interest in the applications of behavioral science to new technology and has published on these topics in places such as the Huffington Post and Strategy & Business.

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