Lockdown learning: #2 More blessed to give…


A short series of 2 minute observations…

Motivation is fascinating … and not just to those who watch soaps. A degree in economics (which when I completed it focused much more on economic theory and behaviour than statistics) and many years in marketing has fed my interest in this area for many years.

Now lockdown is further stimulating my interest – especially around the ever warm topic of altruistic vs selfish motives for doing things. There are two opposite schools of thought on what is best for individuals. The neo-classical school of economics makes the ‘simplifying assumption’ that people always act in their self-interest (aka selfishly) and that this produces the best result. At the same time, Jesus famously said that “it is more blessed to give than receive” (Acts 20:35 in the bible) which suggests that the giver is happier than the getter.

Lockdown certainly seems to have unleashed a dose of the latter motivation. I live in the territory of the Warwickshire Scrubbers who have sewn massive quantities of scrubs and bags for the NHS and I observe people wanting to be able to do something valuable for others – shop, run errands, bake cakes, give flowers, volunteer to help. In all, do something that contributes to helping others.

Clearly we operate out of multiple motivations, something which economics finally recognised in the field of behavioural economics which with its test and learn approach and multiple tests repeatedly confirms our mixed range of motives and their impact on real market behaviour. 

But which actually might be better for us?

This was the subject of a very interesting article in the Economist last week which cited a study that had examined loneliness and mental health – clearly another warm topic with our Covid-19 restrictions.

This study found that giving has a profound positive impact on our physiology that is measurable. Doing something for someone else reduces our sense of loneliness. This in turn changes the number and type of myeloid cells in blood which in turn impacts our resistance to viral infection and levels of inflammation.

In the study by Dr Cole, Dr Lyubomirsky and Megan Fritz, they discovered that people who carried out acts of kindness for others significantly reduced their sense of loneliness and improved their myeloid response. They felt a lot better and were healthier.  Merely buying things to care for oneself did not do this, there was something special about the act of giving.

In short, giving really is better for us (presumably because of the feel good sense of value and connection that it brings?) and this is something we can see during lockdown too.

I have to confess that rather pleases me… whatever the mess it makes to micro-economics.