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Wired by God: The Science of Contagious Generosity

Nicklaus Bartelli

Nicklaus Bartelli

July 15, 2022

“You can’t take it with you, but you can send it on ahead.” — Randy Alcorn, The Treasure Principle

You have likely heard stories of restaurant drive-thru generosity, with several customers “paying it forward” by paying for the car behind them. Your coworker might pay you a compliment about your shirt, so you compliment their shoes. Someone bought you lunch, so you buy them a little Christmas gift. These scenarios are common occurrences, and you can likely think of something similar in your life in just the past week.

So, what makes us become generous when we receive or witness generosity? Is generosity scientifically contagious?

Contagious Generosity Receives Scientific Backing

Scientists have been perplexed by what is deemed a “cycle of generosity and gratitude” in humankind. Researchers Macy and Tsvetkova (2014) set out to answer the question of why people are generous toward others when there is a low probability the act will be returned. Their extensive research showed with statistical significance that receiving and observing generosity can significantly increase the likelihood of being generous towards a stranger. Because participants knew the feeling of gratitude and could give, they did so unto others.

One UC-Berkley study details how gratitude is not just a cultural concept but is in our DNA, hard-wired in our brains, and is enforced during childhood development. Many scientists say the desire to repay generosity is an expression of our biological gratitude.

One of the world’s leading researchers on gratitude is Dr. Robert Emmons, who set out to prove through a series of experiments that gratitude was more than just an emotion. His theory was correct, and he discovered that gratitude had a direct link to sparking kindness, positive life change, and connection.

All of Dr. Emmons’ work paired actions of generosity every time generosity was received and noted. Macy and Tsvetkova’s experiments also met the conclusion that participants were more likely to be generous towards a stranger after experiencing generosity.

Therefore, generosity, by definition, began to receive scientific proof of social contagion.

Answering Generosity’s Question

But why does generosity fuel gratitude and cycle immediately to fuel generosity again? Where does the cycle start on any given day? Who started it?

Maybe it has something to do with the opening quote above. At the end of the day, we know it is more valuable to craft an experience for someone else that we can’t take with us beyond our lifetime. While that might be true, we are often not thinking about the end of our days when someone buys us a coffee. So, where does this idea of gifting for others originate?

The simple and quick answer: our brain.

One of the neurochemicals associated with the parts of the brain affected by gratitude is dopamine, a pleasure hormone (Zahn 2009). The social value of receiving and witnessing generosity can literally produce brain reactions that are the same as positive physical exertions of sleep, exercise, and eating. Gratitude affects brain function on a chemical level and its practice promotes feelings of self-worth and compassion for others.

The long answer: God.

Dr. Caroline Leaf is a cognitive neuroscience pathologist and leading author in linking science concepts to Scripture. In her book, Switch On Your Brain, she explains how thinking, choosing, and emotions are the most powerful things in the universe after God, and a gift from Him that we should treasure. We are wired in such a way that our brains carry out the will of our spirit and soul. “… for as he thinks in his heart, so is he.” — Proverbs 23:7

Dr. Leaf goes on to explain that thoughts are stored in the nonconscious mind before becoming behavior.

“The nonconscious mind is where 99.9% of our mind activity is. It is the root level that stores the thoughts with emotions and perceptions, and it impacts the conscious mind and what we say and do.” —Dr. Caroline Leaf, Switch on Your Brain

Wired by God

Dr. Leaf’s work helps us explain how God brilliantly wired us to see His generosity and blessings and intrinsically designed us to emulate them in compassionate generosity toward others. This concept can be put practically and simply as “negativity fuels negativity,” and in opposite fashion— that “generosity fuels generosity”— it is socially contagious.

In Deuteronomy 30:19, God tells His people, “Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live!”

God wants us to accept life, his blessings, and love. The more we receive and witness blessings, it becomes a habit for our own lives, it leads us to exude Christ, and it causes us to share with others the power of generosity. That perplexing cycle of generosity and gratitude? It was started by God.

“But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.” — 1 Chronicles 29:14

Whenever we give, it is also like honoring a gift to ourselves if we remember that we have not given out of our own power, but through God’s providence.

In his book Radical, author and pastor David Platt adds to this reasoning: “Why not begin operating under the idea that God has given us excess, not so we could have more, but so we could give more?”

Jesus provides a divine answer to the origin of the cycle of generosity and gratitude that has perplexed today’s researchers when he eloquently summarizes our generosity DNA to his disciples in Matthew 10 — “Freely you have received; freely give.”

You can be encouraged that the next time you display the love of Jesus in a generous act, others are, with scientific proof, wired by God to notice, be grateful, and spread generosity and love unto others.

About Nicklaus Bartelli

Nicklaus Bartelli

As the Marketing Engagement Specialist at The Signatry, Nicklaus serves donors and families to make their generosity journeys thrive through educational experiences. He is a documentary filmmaker and storyteller, sharing God’s love through global media.

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