Why Some Give to Those in Need, and Others Don't

There are many reasons for disparate approaches to the distribution of money, and we are just beginning to understand them, but revisiting charitable giving during the holidays when the stock market is high has benefits.

The wealth of a soul is measured by how much it can feel … its poverty by how little.”

― Sherrilyn Kenyon

A couple I know gave $50,000 to the Julian Center of Indianapolis. It provides services for victims of domestic violence. Another gave $15,000 to Dayspring, a homeless shelter for families, also in Indianapolis.

Other acquaintances of mine that have enough money to be charitable never give any away. Though all of these individuals have a common link — significant disposable wealth — their inclination to charity is very different.

There are many reasons for this disparate approach to the distribution of money and we are just beginning to understand them. One reason that is just now being researched is that people differ in their empathy. This translates to their ability to understand and feel others’ misfortune. By putting themselves in someone else’s shoes, some people can literally feel others’ pain. This uncomfortable feeling makes those who can imagine the discomfort want to help. For many, this means giving money to make someone else’s life better.

Of course, among those who give, some give more than others. This is because people vary in their capacity for empathy. Also, they differ in their compassionate response to the pain of others depending on who is in pain. If she is someone valued and close, the observer’s empathy modulator becomes more sensitive. Think of a caring mother with her distressed child. On the other hand, if the person in pain is not liked by the observer, her empathy modulator becomes less sensitive.

We can imagine that Bill and Melinda Gates are empathetic people. They lead The 50 Philanthropists Who Have Given Away The Most Money and also spend numerous hours making sure their gifts are effective. Hannibal Lector, the fictional character in Thomas Harris’s shocking horror novels and a psychopath, would not be. He is callous. His empathy is turned off.

What makes one person different from another for empathy is suspected to be a biological trait. Identical twins, for example, correlate strongly in callousness or lack thereof. Fraternal twins, on the other hand, show less connectivity in this regard. Since the gene is thought to be variable, environment makes a difference, too. An inborn trait can be softened or made more pronounced depending on childhood experiences.

Revisiting charitable giving during the holidays when the stock market is high has benefits. Giving appreciated stock leads to a tax break for the giver. For those in need, receiving the benefit of the money brought in by the sale of the stock makes lives more comfortable. For both, it is a good deal.

Read more:

Does Oxytocin Put You in a Giving Mood?

Christian Keyser (2011): The Empathic Brain