'Tis the Season for Giving!

It’s that time of year again, where malls and websites (and hopefully some local businesses, too!) are overrun with holiday shoppers hoping to score the perfect gift to give a loved one. But why are we so obsessed with finding that perfect present? Recent research by Tristen Inagaki, a fourth year graduate student in the Psychology Department at UCLA, suggests that perhaps it’s because giving to others actually activates the same brain regions as when we get things for ourselves! I interviewed Inagaki, a member of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab at UCLA, about the study.

Keely Muscatell: First of all, congratulations on publishing your study, “Neural Correlates of Giving Support to a Loved One” in this month’s issue of Psychosomatic Medicine! Can you tell me a little bit about the ‘big question’ you were trying to answer in this study, or the problem you were trying to address?

Tristen Inagaki: Thank you, Keely! Previous work has, maybe surprisingly, found a link between providing support to others and actual increased health outcomes with people who report giving support to those around them living longer than those who don’t.  I say surprisingly because many people, especially researchers, assume that the benefits of support only come from the support we get from others, but its possible that giving to others can also be beneficial.  We wanted to explore the possibility that giving has benefits to the actual giver herself.

KM: Can you give me a brief description of the methods you used to tackle this question?

TI: To test the possibility that giving support is good for the giver, we brought in twenty female college students and their boyfriends. As you can imagine, it’s difficult to study something as complicated as giving support to a loved one within the confines of an MRI scanner, which is noisy and loud and limits our ability to talk and make eye contact! But, to try and mimic a real world situation where someone you love might be stressed or in need of support, we decided that we would have the boyfriends get unpleasant electric shocks while the female was in the MRI scanner. This allowed us to capture four different situations: In the main condition of interest, females provided support to their boyfriends by holding his arm in a supportive manner while he was shocked. In another condition, the boyfriends again went through electric shocks, but this time females couldn’t provide him with support but had to hold a ball instead.  Then in a final condition, participants simply held the arm of their boyfriend, but this time he was not being shocked.

KM: And… what did you find?!

TI: We found that participants showed more activity in reward-related brain regions when providing support to their loved ones compared both to when they could not support him and, even more amazingly, when they simply held the arm of their boyfriend.  So, not only does supporting another recruit brain regions previously associated with basic pleasant stimuli such as drugs and chocolate, but it recruits this region even more than being connected with your loved one when they are not stressed.

KM: What is the one point or idea (the “take away message”) you’d like people to remember about this research?

TI: That giving to others can not only be beneficial to the person you are helping, but also to you yourself!

KM: What limitations should we keep in mind when interpreting the results from this study? Are there potential issues with generalizability, the strength of the effects, or other nuances we should consider in deciding how much to make of the results?

TI: Of course, supporting others isn’t always beneficial for you.  There’s a lot of work on caregiver burnout and burden, such as when we care for ill relatives over long periods of time, which shows that supporting others in this more extreme case can actually lead to worse health outcomes.  The thing to keep in mind is that resources and motivation matter.  If you are too stressed with your own problems sometimes supporting someone else might be an additional burden in that moment.

And we also need to follow-up with more studies that look at different kinds of supportive exchanges and different populations.  The current study only had female participants to keep the sample homogenous, but that doesn’t mean that males don’t also benefit from giving to others.  We also used a fairly contrived situation in order to maintain experimental control of the situation, but you can imagine many other types of support we give to each other, both to loved ones and to strangers, that may or may not lead to benefits.

KM: What do you hope will be the broader impact of this paper? In other words, how might these findings inform future research, possible interventions, or how do they contribute to our understanding of how people think and behave, especially outside of academia?

TI: A lot of the research on social support and health just looks at the health benefits to the receiver of support.  This study, along with others, suggest that its time to look at the person giving support as well. Outside of basic psychological research, its nice to find confirmatory evidence for the good feelings that stem from supporting other people.  Its something we probably do almost everyday, so on some level its good to know that it may also lead to some kind of health benefits.  Maybe if we reframed the way we think about support and the support we give to others, it might encourage that kind of behavior more broadly.

KM: Do you plan to follow up on this research? If so, what interesting questions have been generated by this study, or how do you plan to expand on this paper in your future work?

TI: Yes, currently we’re running another study to look more directly at whether or not giving to others actually has stress-reducing properties for the giver.  In this study, participants first give support to another person and then undergo a stressful task.  We expect to see decreased stress reactivity in those who give support compared to those who don’t.  We’re also applying for a grant to do research with a much older population.  Some research on volunteering suggests that support-giving is especially beneficial for older adults because it gives them a sense of purpose and integrates them in a social activity.  We hope to implement some kind of intervention where we have some people give support to others over a number of weeks and then follow-up with them to see if there were any physical or mental health benefits from the support intervention.

If you're interested in reading more about the study, you can find the full article here . This project was done in collaboration with Inagaki's graduate advisor, UCLA professor Naomi Eisenberger.