Generous people 'listen to their hearts,' quite literally

Do you donate to charity? Do you leave generous tips, plan to shower your loved ones with gifts this Christmas, or want to help those in need? If so, your generosity may have a physiological explanation: your heart might be "telling" you to give. Literally.

It's a common enough scenario: you're walking down the street at the end of a long, hard day at work, when you see someone without shelter asking for your help — be it in the form of money or food.

What do you do? Do you immediately stop in your tracks, acutely aware of the fact that another person has it a lot rougher than you, fumble in your pockets for some change, or rush into the nearby supermarket to buy them something to eat?

Or, do you carry on walking, unfazed, perhaps thinking that your day has been exhausting, and that you're entitled to a moment of peace without someone asking something of you?

If the former describes you better, you might be a more generous, or "kind-hearted," person than most.

In fact, common wisdom and the English language have lots of ways to describe you, and they all have something to do with the heart: you "give from the heart," are "kind-hearted," and have "a heart of gold."

Well, new research gives common wisdom some unexpected credit: generous people do seem to listen to their hearts more, and they do so quite literally.

Interoception — a fancy word that describes how in tune you are with your own body — has been found to be linked with how willing you are to give. This new study was carried out by researchers from Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, United Kingdom, in collaboration with scientists from Stockholm University in Sweden.

Dr. Richard Piech, a senior lecturer in psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, is the first author of the paper, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Experimenting with generosity

Dr. Piech and his team asked participants to take part in a computer game that simulated a real-life scenario: giving to charity. The "dictator," or ultimatum, game is a classic one used in experimental economics, often employed to answer the important question, "Do people act exclusively out of self-interest?"

For this research, Dr. Piech and colleagues used an altered version of this classic model, where the participants had to decide, in repeated scenarios, whether to give different amounts of real money to others or keep it for themselves.

Much the same as in real-life charity scenarios, there was no way that the receiver of this giving act could penalize the giver in any way, and the giver was assured that they would never meet the receiver.

To further evaluate altruism, participants were asked to help the experimenter with a questionnaire, without receiving anything in return, after the experiment seemed to have finished.

To assess interoception, participants were asked to complete a "heartbeat detection task." In it, they had their own heartbeat recorded with an electrocardiogram. They were then asked to listen to a range of sounds that were either in or out of sync with their heartbeats, and they did so without being able to feel their own pulse.

Those better able to tell whether the sound was in or out of sync had higher interoception.

'Bizarre' link between altruism and the heart

The study found that those who were better at detecting their own heartbeat were also more generous with their money.

In fact, participants who were 10 percent better at sensing their own heartbeat gave £5 more than their peers did.

Speaking to Medical News Today about the findings, Dr. Piech said, "I was surprised by the clarity [of the findings.] [T]he effect sizes were larger than I would expect."

"The first study found the effect with [approximately] 30 participants," he adds, "and that could have been a fluke, but then the second study, roughly twice the size, confirmed it."

"The other surprising thing is that the link is a bit [...] bizarre. Sure, folk wisdom uses 'giving from the heart,' etc., but folk wisdom is mostly not very wise," Dr. Piech quipped.

In an attempt to explain this "bizarre" link, the researchers put forth some hypotheses.

"It may be that an emotionally charged situation — such as deciding whether or not to give money away — causes a change in heartbeat," Dr. Piech says. "This bodily change may then bias decision-making towards the generous option in those people who are better at detecting their heartbeats."

"These findings suggest that, in some sense, people 'listen to their heart' to guide their selfless behaviors."

Dr. Richard Piech

Interestingly, however, the researchers also tried to improve interoception in the participants, in the hope that it would make them more generous.

Unfortunately, the interoception training did not yield the expected results. Speaking to MNT about why that might be, Dr. Piech said, "[There are] two possible scenarios: 1. [...] there is no mechanical link, and a third variable explains the link. 2: [...] our training did not have enough of an impact, and more would have made a difference."

So, the scientists need to conduct more training tests, and research the underlying mechanisms a bit further.

Until we know more, however, perhaps we could all benefit from paying a little more attention to our bodily signals.

So, the next time you're walking home, carrying your groceries, and somebody asks you for money, take a moment and listen to your heart. It might just be telling you to give.