Is Kindness Altruistic or Strategic? Your Brain Knows.

You know that “warm glow” you feel when you demonstrate an act of kindness without expecting anything in return? Well, a team of researchers discovered that that particular feeling is quite different than when you expect a reward for your kind act.

Our brains are designed to be social. And social relationships have always been at the heart of our survival and our happiness. From humans’ earliest days, we have relied on one another and helped one another and our bodies evolved to reward us for these acts of kindness. Kindness is one of our biggest strengths as humans and was crucial to our survival as a species. In fact, Dr. Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, the lead of a recent study published in NeuroImage, shared that “the decision to share resources is a cornerstone of any cooperative society.”

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Cutler was part of a team of psychologists from the University of Sussex that found that two distinct types of kindness, strategic and altruistic, each affects the brain differently. “Strategic kindness” occurs when someone garners a reward for their act of kindness. This reward could be tangible, like a gift, or intangible like public recognition or praise. “Altruistic kindness” refers to a selfless act of kindness, like paying for someone else’s meal or helping a parent carry their stroller up the subway steps.

Although previous studies have hinted at a connection between generosity and the reward network of the brain, this is the first study to differentiate between the two types of kindness. What they discovered is that the reward center of the brain is more active when there is the opportunity to receive something in return, aka “strategic kindness.” However, with “altruistic kindness”, not only did the reward center of the brain light up but so did other areas of the brain like the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that deals with emotional behavior. These findings suggest that there is something unique about giving when there is no expectation for it to be returned or rewarded.

Since both types of kindness are beneficial, why is it so important to know the difference? Because if we know what motivates us, we can encourage behaviors that drive positive outcomes. Campbell-Meiklejohn further elaborates, “Some people might say that ‘why’ we give does not matter, as long as we do. However, what motivates us to be kind is both fascinating and important. If, for example, governments can understand why people might give when there’s nothing in it for them, then they can understand how to encourage people to volunteer, donate to charity, or support others in their community.”

Jo Cutler, who co-authored the study, sees further implications in relationship building. “If after a long day helping a friend move house, they hand you a fiver, you could end up feeling undervalued and less likely to help again. A hug and kind words, however, might spark a warm glow and make you feel appreciated. We found some brain regions were more active during altruistic, compared to strategic, generosity so it seems there is something special about situations where our only motivation to give to others is to feel good about being kind.”

It’s still not clear why the brain reacts differently to the differing motivations behind acts of kindness. But the fact remains, whether you are volunteering your time to help a friend, or working overtime to help your manager finish a project, or just giving kudos to a co-worker for their awesome presentation, these acts will not only give you the warm and fuzzies in a completely unique way, but you’ll light up someone else’s day as well.