NUS Study: Older Adults are Good Samaritans to Strangers

Do people become more generous as they age? Assistant Professor Yu Rongjun and Dr Narun Pornpattananangkul from the Department of Psychology certainly think so, and their latest study examines the reasons for why this might be the case.

In a study published in Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences on 5 April 2017, the researchers find that older adults donate more to strangers than younger adults do, even when their generosity is unlikely to be reciprocated. While both younger and older adults are equally generous to people who are close to them, such as close friends and family, older adults are more generous to whom they are socially distant, such as total strangers. When adapted to the social-discounting framework, this study demonstrates that older adults engage in less social discounting as compared to younger adults, as their level of generosity does not decrease with social distance as quickly as the latter.


Why the altruistic behaviour?

“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 Assistant Professor Yu Rongjun, who led the study. In other words, greater generosity in late life may well be an avenue for older adults to seek emotional gratification and a sense of purpose in life.

The researchers further speculate that age-related changes at the neurobiological level may account for the changes in generosity, as this heightened motivation in older adults to contribute to the greater good – or the “ego-transcending” motivation – parallels that of participants in an earlier study who received oxytocin, a hormone related to maternal love and trust. Dr Pornpattananangkul, a research fellow at the Department of Psychology, elaborates, “In this study, we found a similar pattern of an ego-transcending motivation among the older adults, as if the older adults received oxytocin to boost their generosity.”


Moving forward: Studies to Examine Neural Mechanisms Involved in Decision Making

Given the inclination of older adults towards generosity and altruism, Assistant Professor Yu suggests that older adults should be provided with “more opportunities to help others”, as its benefits extend to both society and older adults themselves.

Going ahead, Assistant Professor Yu and his team look forward to using brain-imaging technologies to examine the neural mechanisms that underlie changes in decision-making. Research findings from these studies are immensely valuable, as the insights derived from them may be translated into effective intervention programmes to promote healthy ageing, and may also help tackle age-related conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease, which are often characterised by deficits in decision-making.

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