Atlanta Hawks player Trae Young has helped settle medical bills for 570 Atlanta families, CNN reported. He did so through the Atlanta Hawks player’s foundation and a nonprofit organization. What makes people choose to be altruistic?
According to CNN, point guard Trae Young said he simply wanted to give back to the Atlanta community for welcoming him into their city. Young worked with RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit organization that helps families across the nation to pay off medical debt by seeking help from others. “Young donated $10,000 through his foundation, which erased $1,059,186.39 of medical debt,” the article said. “The average amount abolished was $1,858 for 570 people.”
There are a lot of reasons that contribute to people choosing to be charitable. Some reasons are purely altruistic while other reasons are due to people seeking recognition or societal reward.
“Research in economics; psychology; and, now, neuroscience all converges on an explanation that people are motivated by internal benefits,” said Dr. Scott Huettel, the Jerry G. and Patricia Crawford Hubbard Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. “The very act of giving leads to a good feeling about oneself—what’s sometimes called a ‘warm glow’ feeling—and that provides utility to those who give.”
At the same time, Dr. Huettel said, some economists have implemented the warm glow idea into so-called “impure altruism,” which explains real-world charitable giving. “If people give, in part, because giving feels good, then government subsidies shouldn’t completely offset private giving,” he said. “Tax dollars that support public radio don’t substitute for one’s own gift, since the tax dollars don’t lead to a warm glow.”
Similarly, when major relief funds are advertised, like the Red Cross, people may not give if they were driven by the reality that their own small contribution may not make much of a difference toward the financial goal. “But if people are motivated by the feeling they get by acting altruistic, then they’ll still give even when they know others are likely to give, too,” Dr. Huettel said.
Putting a Face on a Crisis
One strange phenomenon that occasionally determines levels of altruism is how specific the party in need is.
“People are often less willing to give when many thousands or millions of people need help, as when famine afflicts an entire region or when war or genocide tears a country apart,” Dr. Huettel said. “When one person suffers, we can empathize with them or their family. We can imagine what it must be like to experience some tragedy.”
Dr. Huettel explained that we engage in something called “social cognition mechanisms.” In other words, they are cognition processes that help us understand and empathize with other people’s situations. But there’s no single face with which to identify when we see the larger magnitudes of problems, such as when there is an identifiable face that we connect to for a narrow-in-scope, isolated problem.
“When a tragedy affects many people, we think about the harm to the community, the number of people homeless, the size of the area affected by famine,” he said. “We can’t empathize as easily with [each] person; there might not even be any identifiable people whose stories are being told—and we can’t imagine how our minor contribution could possibly make a difference in such a terrible situation. So we shake our heads, mutter at the unfairness of life, and move on.”
Of course, just because people sometimes struggle to donate to a larger-scale, less-specific cause, that doesn’t apply to all people, nor does it necessarily apply to someone all of the time. Trae Young contributed to the Atlanta Hawks player’s foundation, which eliminated over $1 million in medical debt for nearly 600 low-income Atlanta families he’ll likely never meet.
Dr. Scott Huettel contributed to this article. Dr. Huettel is the Jerry G. and Patricia Crawford Hubbard Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. He earned his Ph.D. from Duke in Experimental Psychology and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in functional brain imaging and decision science at the university’s medical center.