Are Older Adults as Generous as we Think? – S. Beaubouef


There are many assumptions and stereotypes that are given to older adults in our culture.  One of those stereotypes is that older adults are more charitable and generous when compared to younger generations.  Four empirical studies tested this stereotype: two of which involved monetary giving and two others that involved volunteering or the giving of time. These will be analyzed to conclude whether this stereotype is supported or refutable.


A cross-sectional study performed by Jason Hubbard et al focused on whether benevolent acts performed by older adults are selfishly motivated or if they are authentically charitable.  The methods involved in this experiment included the use of MRIs and fMRIs to track the neural activity within the value and reward centers of the brain (2016).  This allowed researchers to observe what the participants experienced when observing monetary transactions that involved charities and the participants themselves.  The participants in the study consisted of 80 individuals with an age range between 18 and 67 (Hubbard et al, 2016).  This allowed the researchers to assess if altruistic tendencies did increase throughout the lifespan or if there was a separate dependent variable.  For the procedure, participants were presented a booklet with information about 24 varying charities and were asked to read it.  They were then given a total of $100 and were given a passive-viewing task as well as an active-choice task.  The passive-viewing task consisted of four possible options; money to oneself, meaning $20 goes to the participant and $0 goes to charity, money to charity, meaning $20 goes to charity and the participant receives $0, loss to oneself, meaning the participant must pay $20 from their own personal finances and $0 goes to charity, or base line, meaning neither the participant nor the charity receives $20 (Hubbard et al, 2016).  The active-choice task consisted of monetary transfers of $10, $20, or $40 from the $100 presented by the researchers.  The researchers would choose one of the previously listed amounts to give to a charity that was presented in the booklet.  Participants were then asked to “accept” or “reject” the transfer.  The purpose of this task was to represent the Giving Choice factor (Hubbard et al, 2016).  The results concluded that the neural indicators for charity-gain and self-gain had between a 45% and 64% overlap which confirms the premeditated choice of value and utility areas within the brain which also produced indicators during the trial.  Researchers also found that the General Benevolence factor had a strong positive correlation with age suggesting that charitability and selfless tendencies increase throughout the life span (Hubbard et al, 2016).  The researchers commented on this trend as “unusually strong compared to typically found age trends for standard personality measures” (Hubbard et al, 2016) thus supporting the stereotype.

A second cross-sectional experiment performed by Pär Bjälkebring et al focused on generosity among older adults and the research suggesting that they actively engage in activities that promote positivity.  Two separate studies were conducted; the first study involved 350 participants found from the Decision Research participants pool and ranged between 20 to 74 years of age.  In this study, the participants were told the study focused on charitability and were about to see a photo of a child in need.  Researchers also asked to imagine feelings like a “warm glow”, which has been described in other research when asked about charitable giving.  A picture of a single child and their name would be presented to the participants while researchers described the child as one in need and facing starvation but the participants have an opportunity to help said child.  The researchers then asked participants to rate six different feelings and to what extent as well as a monetary amount (if any) they wanted to donate (Bjälkebring et al, 2016).  The second study was performed to assess the consequences after having made an actual monetary donation.  There was a total of 72 participants that were selected from the Gothenburg University participant pool and ranged in age from 19 to 89 years.  The procedure consisted of telling the participants they would receive the equivalent of $15 for their time in the study and, if they preferred, could give away part or all the funds to a charity.  They were presented with the same picture from the previous study as well as the same description.  The donations that were made were considered the first part of the experiment.  Five days after the trial, participants received a survey asking about their feelings about their choice of donating or not.  The letter also included the picture of the child as well as whatever sum of money the participant donated (Bjälkebring et al, 2016).  The results their first study concluded that older adults had stronger feelings of compassion and sympathy when compared to younger adults, however, there was no age correlation between the intensity of feelings such as “warm glow” or the total amount of money donated thus refuting the stereotype.  The results from the second study also found that there was no correlation between the participants’ age and the amount donated to charity.  However, this study found several indicators suggesting that older adults might donate more than younger adults which supports the stereotype of older adults having and acting with more generosity.

Choi et al conducted a cross-sectional study that focused on older adults and volunteering trends (2010).  They used two national surveys, one from 1995-96 and from 2004-06, to gather their data to assess the number of people who reported volunteering.  The primary focus was to assess the number of volunteers who reported volunteering in both surveys and compare them to those who reported in one, but not the other (Choi et al, 2010).  The results found that repeat volunteers were more devoted and less likely to quit than people who do not consistently volunteer.  They also found that there were no indications of large age-gaps between long time volunteers and those who are new; however, the results showed that adults aged 55 through 64 were more likely to volunteer their time while adults aged 75 to 84 were more likely to donate money.  An interesting trend researchers found was that the level of education was a major indication of who volunteers in older adulthood as well as the size and extent of their social network and how often they are engaged with it (Choi et al, 2010). These findings support the stereotype.

Finally, the cross-sectional study performed by McNamara et al focused around how human, cultural, and social capitals impact and influence volunteering among older adults (2011).  The researchers used the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) as well as the Consumption and Activity Mail Survey (CAMS) to gather data surrounding older adults aged 50 and older and their volunteering habits.  Researchers also focused on married couples and whether they enjoyed spending free time with their spouse as well as if they enjoyed volunteering with their spouse (McNamara et al, 2011).  The results yielded from McNamara et al showed that education and monetary assets had a positive relationship with older adults’ volunteering in both time and intensity of the volunteering confirming that human capital does increase volunteering habits.  Under the social capital, results showed that married couples who both enjoyed spending free time with each other and are repeat volunteers were more likely to invest and participate in rigorous volunteer activities.  Finally, the cultural capital aspect was found to positively correlate with volunteering when attached to religious activities as well as have negative correlations with the suspension of volunteering activities. These findings support the idea of older adults having more benevolence.


            In summation, the four research studies found evidence that supports this stereotype.


Bjälkebring, P., Västfjäll, D., Dickert, S., & Slovic, P. (2016). Greater emotional gain from giving in older adults: Age-related positivity bias in charitable giving. Frontiers In Psychology, 7

Choi, N. G., & Chou, R. J. (2010). Time and money volunteering among older adults: The relationship between past and current volunteering and correlates of change and stability. Ageing & Society, 30(4), 559-581. doi:10.1017/S0144686X0999064X

Hubbard, J., Harbaugh, W. T., Srivastava, S., Degras, D., & Mayr, U. (2016). A general benevolence dimension that links neural, psychological, economic, and life-span data on altruistic tendencies. Journal Of Experimental Psychology: General, 145(10), 1351-1358. doi:10.1037/xge0000209

McNamara, T. K., & Gonzales, E. (2011). Volunteer transitions among older adults: The role of human, social, and cultural capital in later life. The Journals Of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Sciences And Social Sciences, 66(4), 490-501. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbr055




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