That warm glow you feel after helping someone is a real thing, thanks to the reward centers of your brain. Researchers from the University of Sussex, England, found that this response occurred even if one had nothing to gain from the act of kindness.

The study titled "A comparative fMRI meta-analysis of altruistic and strategic decisions to give" was published in the journal NeuroImage on Sept. 7.

"The decision to share resources is a cornerstone of any cooperative society," said lead author Dr. Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, the Director of the Social Decision Laboratory at Sussex. "We know that people can choose to be kind because they like feeling like they are a ‘good person’, but also that people can choose to be kind when they think there might be something ‘in it’ for them such as a returned favor or improved reputation."

When it comes to acts of kindness, many tend to focus on the action rather than the motivation behind it. But Campbell-Meiklejohn says the "why" is something that should be understood as well. Not only because it is "fascinating" but also because it could have useful implications.

He cites an example of how governments could use the knowledge of why people give when they get nothing in return, which could help create better ways to encourage volunteering, donating to charity, offering support to the community, etc.

The research team conducted a meta-analysis of three dozen studies involving over 1000 participants, all of whom had their brains scanned (fMRI) while they were making kind decisions. 

The objective was to compare people who acted out of altruism — genuine kindness with nothing to gain and no ulterior motives — to people who exhibit strategic generosity — an act of kindness which would give them something in return.

It was found that the reward center of the brain lit up in both cases, meaning that the region was activated and used more oxygen. The authors refer to this as that feeling of a "warm glow" after we do something good. But they also found additional changes in the brain during the first case (altruism) which suggested a unique response when we are kind without expecting to gain something from it.  

"We found some brain regions were more active during altruistic, compared to strategic, generosity so it seems there is something special about situations where our only motivation to give to others is to feel good about being kind," said Jo Cutler, a Ph.D. student who co-authored the study.

Cutler also makes an interesting observation about the role of rewards. She explains that in some cases, rewarding altruistic acts could actually be a bad thing as it could alter how a person sees their own act of kindness, making it seem more like a transaction. 

She gives the example of a charity offering something to donors as a "token gesture" which could backfire by undermining their altruism. "In doing so, charities might also inadvertently replace the warm glow feeling with a sense of having had a bad deal," she stated.