Generosity and Charitable Donations Linked to Oxytocin

Generosity Charitable Donations Oxytocin
Generosity – Oxytocin

Some of the prosocial effects of oxytocin (OT) such as trust, emotional empathy and socially reinforced learning are well-known, but a recent study published in the Hormones and Behavior journal is perhaps one of the first to show that oxytocin increases generosity and charitable donations.

Oxytocin (OT) is a nine amino acid neuropeptide, discovered by Sir Henry Dale in 1906 and the first peptide hormone to be sequenced and synthesized by Vincent du Vigneaud in 1953.

The hormone, best known for its role in inducing labor and lactation, is also involved in a wide variety of physiological and pathological functions.

This includes sexual activity, maternal behavior, social recognition, building trust, emotional empathy, social bonding and the establishment of early bonding. Also low levels of oxytocin have been linked with anxiety in children and reported in women with depression.

Our bodies also produce oxytocin when we’re excited by our sexual partner, and when we fall in love. That’s why it has earned the nicknames, “love hormone” and “cuddle hormone”.

Oxytocin induces a general sense of well-being including calm, improved social interactions, reduced fear, anxiety and stress system activity.

The hormone it also secreted by the thymus and is involved in T cell differentiation and activation, modulation of inflammation and cytokine production, and has been implicated in autism, depression and several cancers. Actually, Vincent Geenen and his group showed that the neurohypophysial hormone oxytocin is synthesized in thymic epithelial cells and that functional oxytocin receptors are expressed by immature T cells (thymocytes).

In fact, the first study to demonstrate that oxytocin increases generosity in humans is most likely the work of Paul J Zak, Angela A Stanton and Sheila Ahmadi published in 2007 in PLoS One. In this study, participants were infused with 40 IU oxytocin or placebo. Two decision tasks from experimental economics, the ultimatum game (UG) and the dictator game (DG) were used. Oxytocin raised generosity in the UG by 80% over placebo. The increased generosity was not due to greater altruism because OT did not affect transfers in the DG, and the impact of OT on generosity remains significant even when altruism in the DG was taken into account.

Interestingly, as per the authors of this study, citing the corresponding references, in 2005, over $260 billion was given to U.S. charities, and the absolute amount of charitable giving is not only high, but the proportion of income donated has grown. Moreover, in 2005, over 65 million Americans volunteered to help charities, and ninety-six percent of volunteers said that one of their motivations was “feeling compassion toward other people”.

In the Hormones and Behavior study Jorge Barraza and colleagues from the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, Claremont Graduate University demonstrate that oxytocin affects pro-social behaviors. They report that OT did not affect the decision to donate, but among the participants who did donate, people infused with oxytocin donate 48% more to charity than those given a placebo.

These findings suggest that OT can promote acts of giving that indirectly benefit others. This study is the first to demonstrate that oxytocin influences prosocial behaviors that have delayed and distant effects.

According to the authors this indicates that oxytocin can promote acts of giving and indirect generosity, increasing the size of monetary donations to charitable organizations. As there are no direct benefits to anonymous charitable giving for the donor, donation behavior can be seen as a form of altruism.

These findings add to previous research showing that oxytocin affects virtuous behaviors directed at individuals, revealing that oxytocin affects a wide range of pro-social behaviors that may be considered uniquely human.

SOURCEHorm Behav 2011, 60:148. Epub 2011 May 8

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Cover Image (left panel): Dalai Lama from What 7 Experts Say about Happiness (including the Dalai Lama), The Dalai Lama called for the 21st century to be a century of compassion, url:; (right panel): Paul J. Zak, an American neuroeconomist, Paul Zak 2021, Public Domain, From Wikimedia Commons,