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Give till it helps

We're told it's better to give than to receive. Now scientists are weighing in -- and say generosity indeed has benefits for body and mind.

December 24, 2007|Karen Ravn | Special to The Times

We've pored over catalogs, spent hours online, made umpteen harrowing treks to the mall.

We've hustled and bustled, been hassled and harried, shopped till we dropped (and dropped lots of cash too). We're stressed as heck, and we're not going to take this any more -- until next year.

If giving Christmas presents is so hard, why do people do it?

Evidence is piling up (like those packages under the tree) that human beings were born to give. Their very physiology makes them do it.

Studies show that when a person gives money to a stranger or a charity, the "rewards area" of the brain gets busy. It's the same area that goes to town when the person eats a sugar cookie or finds a parking place at the mall or receives a gift of money from Ed McMahon.

Not only that, but generous people also seem to live longer and stay healthier than those "bah humbug" types, according to population studies. It's even possible (scientists are busy testing this concept now) that the more Christmas spirit shoppers have, the fewer bugs they're likely to catch during the holidays.

Gift-giving, in a nutshell, seems to improve people's health and longevity. It lifts their mood and bolsters their ego. And perhaps most important of all, it makes people beholden to one another, so that when their goose is cooked, they have friends to save their skin. Or so goes the evolutionary theory.

"The most important thing I learned in writing a whole book about human relationships is 'give more gifts,' " says evolutionary biologist Jay Phelan, a life sciences academic administrator at UCLA and co-author of "Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts."

A gift doesn't have to be expensive, studies show. It really is the thought that counts -- well, the thought and the pretty wrapping.

But just try telling that to Joel Waldfogel.

"People are best suited to make choices for themselves," says Waldfogel, a professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. The lesson from his own research? Don't give gifts. Give money.

"How is gift-giving as a way of choosing stuff for me?" he says. "The answer is -- it's a crummy way."

Giving to live

Quite apart from the risk of receiving a lime-green polyester pant suit, gift-giving may seem foolish from an evolutionary, struggle-for-survival perspective. By hoarding resources (cashmere sweaters, pricey perfume, peppermint bark) instead of giving them to others you'd probably have more luck passing on your genes.

But survival is also helped by generosity of the one-good-turn-deserves-another variety, or the one-nice-gift-deserves-another-of-approximately-equal-value-and-thoug htfulness variety.

That's called "reciprocal altruism," and it has inspired many a mad dash to the mall.

"It's a way of buffering yourself from an uncertain future," Phelan says. "You never know when you might need help. When you have friends, you're much better off."

Because reciprocal altruism proved valuable for survival purposes, people evolved to feel a basic inclination to be generous and helpful -- and to feel good about it, according to several recent studies

For example, a report published in the November issue of the Public Library of Science's journal, ONE, showed that the inclination to be generous is influenced by the hormone oxytocin. Give people extra doses of oxytocin, and they'll be much more generous than they would be otherwise.

In the study, 68 male subjects were randomly assigned to pairs and then played games in which player A was given $10 and told to offer some of it to player B. If B accepted A's offer, both of them would get to keep their shares of the money. But if B rejected the offer, they were both Scrooged, so to speak.

Clearly, it was in A's self-interest to make the lowest offer he thought B would accept. But players who had inhaled a dose of oxytocin offered, on average, 21% more ($4.86) than players who had been given a placebo ($4.03).

Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter that is naturally stimulated by such things as touching or feeling trusted, and it has been shown to facilitate various social interactions, including the bonding of mother to child.

"I think of oxytocin as social glue," says the study's lead author Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont. "Oxytocin facilitates living in groups."

The scientists conducted other experiments and found that oxytocin doses increased generosity 80%.

A second study, published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also may have linked oxytocin to cheerful giving. The research, which investigated charitable giving, found it really may be better to give than to receive.

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