Why Grandma is more giving

13 June 2017 | Research
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A new study has found that older persons are more generous

Older persons are much more inclined to lend a stranger a helping hand, this according to a recent study led by Assistant Professor Yu Rongjun from NUS Psychology and the Singapore Institute for Neurotechnology at NUS.

...as people become older, their values shift away from purely personal interests to more enduring sources of meaning found in their communities.

The study, conducted from March 2016 to January 2017, sought to understand the core motivation behind an increase in altruistic behaviour — such as volunteerism and caring for the environment — by people as they age. The findings were published online in Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences in April 2017.

Employing a framework known as social discounting, which assumes that people treat those they are closer to better, 39 older adults (about 70 years old) and 39 younger adults (about 23 years old) in Singapore were asked to rate how close they were to people in their social environment and the amount of money they would give to each respective person. The team then used a computational model to calculate how much participants were willing to give to another person as a function of social distance.

The results revealed that while both younger and older adults are equally generous to people with whom they are close, the elderly are more generous towards strangers, even when their generosity is unlikely to be reciprocated. Their level of generosity also does not decrease with distance as quickly as that of younger adults.

“Greater generosity was observed among senior citizens possibly because as people become older, their values shift away from purely personal interests to more enduring sources of meaning found in their communities,” explained Asst Prof Yu. Having more opportunities to help others could therefore provide the elderly with an avenue for emotional gratification and sense of purpose, as well as benefit society as a whole, he added.

Speculating that the differing levels of generosity could be due to age-related changes at the neurobiological level, the team plans to use brain-imaging technologies to further examine the neural mechanisms underlying shifts in decision making. The findings could be used to implement healthy ageing programmes, as well as help tackle age-related conditions such as Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

See press release.

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Asst Prof Yu (left) and first author of the research paper Dr Narun Pornpattananangkul