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The Science of Generosity

Generosity can be contagious in a healthy way.
Brother David Steindl-Rast

Christian Smith is a professor of sociology and the director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. The university gained funding to start the Science of Generosity initiative from the John Templeton Foundation. The initiative tag line is “exploring an essential human virtue” and they consider this the infancy of a new science focused on human generosity.

In a recent article in Science and Religion, Smith tells of the current research projects they have going:

  • Ariel Knafo, a psychologist at Hebrew University is working on “The Family Cycle of Kindness and Generosity.” This uses studies of identical twins to find how nature and nurture (child development, genetics, and environment) work together in children in the development of a generous disposition.
  • Carolyn Warner , a political scientist at Arizona State University,  is working on “The Role of Religious Beliefs and Institutions in Generosity” by looking specifically at Catholicism and Islam. She hopes to help us better understand how specific religious beliefs and practices differ between these religions, how they help foster or create obstacles to generosity, and investigate whether they encourage generosity toward outsiders or toward their own communities.
  • James Andreoni, an economist at the University of California, San Diego has a project called “The Inherent Sociality of Giving and Altruism.” It takes his research on the positive emotional experience charitable donors experience (the “warm-glow”) and expands it to understand the relationship dyadic between the donor and recipient. He regards generosity as a principally social act and seeks to understand the role that empathy plays in the donor-recipient relationship.
  • Nicholas Christakis is a sociologist at Harvard University who focuses on social networks. He hopes to investigate how much social networks rely on generosity to keep them solvent and functional. He will also research how generous acts can spread and cascade through social networks.

Here we have the fields of psychology, human development, political science, religious studies, behavioral economics, sociology, and communications all studying the trait of generosity. And the John Templeton Foundation is funding research beyond just the work going on through Notre Dame. It seems that generosity studies have become popular. Smith says, “The science of generosity is in its infancy.” Indeed!

It’s not that you’ve got to be generous, but you get to be.
It’s not haranguing or threatening. It’s liberation.

– Dr. Martin E. Marty

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