The Science of Generosity

Let’s end the year with a moment of gratitude

Dana G Smith
Elemental
Published in
4 min readDec 15, 2020

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Photo: Hakase_/Getty Images

This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.

I’ve been thinking a lot about altruism recently. Early on in the pandemic, I spoke with Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki, PhD, an expert in empathy. He said that during disasters, “people are actually much kinder and more prosocial toward each other — not even kinder than they are cruel, but kinder than they are typically.”

Zaki predicted that this tendency could be maintained through the coronavirus pandemic if people practiced altruism and empathy like a skill. “I think the length, the sheer duration of this tragedy, the fact that we’re all stuck in this new normal together, gives us the opportunity to create shared bonds that could last for a really long time,” he said.

For some people, that may be the case. Credit should be given where credit is due, and for the majority of the year, the majority of Americans have worn masks and stayed home, forgoing social interactions and normal life to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus. But many people have not, as evidenced by the United States’ continual failure to quash the virus like Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and so many other countries around the world have, some multiple times.

To be clear, this nation’s catastrophic failure when it comes to the pandemic is due to numerous factors, the majority of which stem from a lack of clear guidance and financial support from the government. Why should people think bars and restaurants are unsafe when they’re open for business? How can restaurants close if it means they’ll go bankrupt without any financial support? How can a waiter stay home from work when they’re sick if it means they’ll be fired?

But a sentiment among some experts is that one of America’s primary shortcomings in this pandemic has been a lack of empathy, altruism, and personal sacrifice.

Why am I writing about this now in a newsletter about the brain? Because, ironically, we have entered the…

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Dana G Smith
Elemental

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental