Give or gain? What motivates people to start new projects?

Give or Gain

Many think that people are intrinsically egoistic and that generosity and altruism aren’t real. They believe that we only give in order to eventually get something in return, to be perceived as good or to free ourselves of guilt. Others even consider generosity as an indicator of weakness and as potentially jeopardizing sound reasoning and decision-making. However, our findings and those of recent studies are proving otherwise (Emiliana, Simon-Thomas, & al., 2011; Goetz, Keltner & Simon-Thomas, 2010, Cooper, 2010).


We are hardwired to fight or flight in face of danger but we are also hardwired to empathise and cooperate. “Compassion and benevolence are evolved part of human nature, rooted in our biology and brain and ready to be cultivated for the greater good” says Dr Dacher Keltner from Stanford University. His recent studies on the evolution of compassion indicate that these qualities have for primary function to facilitate cooperation and protect the weak and those who suffer from our community. Other studies, conducted by Dr Nigel Nicholson, from the London Business School, also show that empathy and our need for social belonging are keys to our survival. In short, without our capacity to help each other, we would have never survived.


So, I was curious to review Individual Motivational Profile (IMP) reports that my colleague John Smartt and I conducted with adults and see what were the key motivating factors for individuals to get involved in new projects or ventures.


I reviewed over 130 reports and extracted the keywords of the individual’s objective that people expressed when they got involved in a new project or venture. I found that “contributing to others” was one of the top five reasons why people got involved. Objectives included keywords like: “To derive a worthwhile result for myself and others”, “when I see a need to help others”, “to contribute to a person or a business and see them flourish”. Such examples abounded in the reports.


The other most frequently quoted objectives were needs for learning, growth and elf-actualisation (e.g.:” to be the best I can be”), followed by undertaking something challenging and improving situations. One could argue that improving situations could even be classified as a means for alleviating some kind of suffering and hence, contributing to others. Overall, 85% of the primary objectives to get involved were to meet a broader need for meaning in life, e.g.: contributing, learning, growth, creativity, discovery, purpose, efficacy, etc. The other objectives were to meet needs for connection, peace, joy and autonomy.


Maybe I knew this all along and I have read the reports with my own biases and philanthropic view of the world. However, I would welcome anyone to review the reports and disprove my findings. So, sages, poets and spiritual leaders alike have known this for thousands of years, we seem to gain more when we give!


Further Readings


Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, & al. (2011). An fMRI Study of Caring vs Self-focus During Induced Compassion and Pride. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.


Goetz, J. L., Keltner, D. & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: An Evolutionary Analysis and Empirical Review. Psychological Bulletin, University of California, Berkeley.


Nicholson, N. (2000). Managing the Human Animal, London: Texere.


Cooper, J.C. (2010). When Giving Is Good: Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex Activation for Others’ Intentions. Neuron, Department of Psychology, Stanford University.

Copyright © 2015 by Sylvie Vanasse. All rights reserved