Generosity is a vital part of our entire human society. We give blood, we help strangers with directions, we donate to our favorite non profits, and sometimes we even give each other advice even if no one asked for it! We do all these things even though they may serve no benefit to us at all. This is just a small example of how humans engage in acts of generosity. But, why? Why are humans generous? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.
The study of generosity means we will need to psychology, human history, and evolution! This is one of the best parts about science, the cross-disciplinary adventures! In order to study generosity scientists recently looked at the Hazda population in Africa. The science community is quite aware of this indigenous people of Tanzania, Africa. We actually did a report recently on the health benefits of eating like a hunter-gatherer by studying the diet of the Hazda people. Our modern world as we know it was still rooted in decisions made by our species from about 250,000 years ago. Occasionally we look back to learn how things would have been and to do that we must consult with these populations that are seemingly cut off from our day to day modern world.
Granted, these individuals that were studied certainly live during our modern times, but they still operate like hunter gatherers and that helps scientists approximate the way human evolution worked.
The Hazda live their life in a harsh environment where food is a scarce resource. To look into how generosity works for the hunter gatherer lifestyle they conducted an experiment in which they studied hundreds of adults spread out in a bunch of different camps. This experiment took over six years and involved 400 adults from 56 different camps scattered throughout their territory. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle involved a few things that we don't commonly do in our world. They must chase their food and sometimes ends up taking them far away from their home base. Often times there are ceremonies and other cultural ongoings that also require leaving one's camp and often requires needing another camp to be based out of for a while. So as a part of life Hazda individuals will find themselves joining different camps every few months or so.
This experiment involves looking at individual Hazda members and looking at these camps which are groups of Hazda individuals living together. Each member of the study was given 4 sticks of honey, a delicious and valuable resource in a landscape where food is unpredictable at best. Later every person involved in the study was asked to put these honey sticks in piles, one for the individual and one for the overall group. While individuals may have varying levels of generosity, there was a pretty remarkable outcome for the collection of honey sticks for the group, by the end of the study, the overall group’s pile had tripled!
Through this study they saw that local groups and behavioral norms of the camps impact how individuals contributed to the group. So an individual may have different variances of generosity, when placed in a generous group the individuals would become more generous also. Meaning individuals adapted their own tendencies as to match that of the camp’s when moving from different camp to camp. This showed the scientists that there was no stable tendency and that the individual’s generosity changed based on the camps they were in.
These findings now challenge the existing notion that generosity evolved as a byproduct of individual tendencies to be cooperators or uncooperative. So, regardless of an individuals leanings towards generosity, a large group that is more generous would pull more generosity out of the individual too. This study highlights the flexible nature of human cooperation which showed that generosity can be contagious! So, the question now is, we see how it works in a hunter-gatherer setting and can draw parallels to how human evolution helped shape group survival based on generosity, but does this apply in every day settings now as well? We are a pretty far stretch from a hunter gatherer lifestyle here and we certainly see our fair share of generosity and greed. Could being more generous inspire others to be more generous? A notion worth of investigating on many levels.
Naturally, after the research these scientists published their findings and generously shared it with the world. After all, sharing is caring, folks!