Research suggests that generosity increases with age. One reason suggested for this is that older adults may be more motivated to provide assistance to individuals who are not likely to reciprocate that generosity. In general, people are most generous to those who are socially close to them, but researchers wanted to see if age is associated with changes in this pattern.
To answer this question, a group of 39 older adults (average age of 70) was compared to 39 younger adults (average age of 23), on what has been termed a “social discounting task.” This task begins by having participants rate how close they are to a variety of individuals on a scale of 1 to 100, where 1 is closest and 100 is a total stranger. Then the participants were given the option of hypothetically splitting $150 with individuals of varying degrees of closeness, or just keeping an amount of money varying from $75 to $165 for themselves alone.
When the researchers examined the data from this task, they found that there were no statistically significant differences in the likelihood of younger and older adults of keeping the money for themselves or splitting the $150 when there was a feeling of greater social closeness with the other person (social closeness scores less than 50). However, for strangers (when the social closeness score was 50 or greater), a different pattern emerged. Here, older adults were significantly more likely to split the money with the other person, despite having little to no social connection with that person.
The researchers describe this effect as reflecting an ego-transcending motive that grows with age, which increases generosity to socially distant others (e.g., strangers). They suggest that these findings are in line with motivations that older adults may have to find emotionally meaningful goals of contributing to the greater good. Fulfilling such desires can be emotionally meaningful for older adults, in addition to the benefits that can accrue to those being helped.
Pornpattananangkul N, Chowdhury A, Feng L, and Yu R. Social discounting in the elderly: senior citizens are good samaritans to strangers. Journals of Gerontology B Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. (2017). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbx040