Prosocial behavior leads to happiness in a small-scale rural society

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2015 Aug;144(4):788-95. doi: 10.1037/xge0000082. Epub 2015 Jun 1.


Humans are extraordinarily prosocial, and research conducted primarily in North America indicates that giving to others is emotionally rewarding. To examine whether the hedonic benefits of giving represent a universal feature of human behavior, we extended upon previous cross-cultural examinations by investigating whether inhabitants of a small-scale, rural, and isolated village in Vanuatu, where villagers have little influence from urban, Western culture, survive on subsistence farming without electricity, and have minimal formal education, report or display emotional rewards from engaging in prosocial (vs. personally beneficial) behavior. In Study 1, adults were randomly assigned to purchase candy for either themselves or others and then reported their positive affect. Consistent with previous research, adults purchasing goods for others reported greater positive emotion than adults receiving resources for themselves. In Study 2, 2- to 5-year-old children received candy and were subsequently asked to engage in costly giving (sharing their own candy with a puppet) and non-costly giving (sharing the experimenter's candy with a puppet). Emotional expressions were video-recorded during the experiment and later coded for happiness. Consistent with previous research conducted in Canada, children displayed more happiness when giving treats away than when receiving treats themselves. Moreover, the emotional rewards of giving were largest when children engaged in costly (vs. non-costly) giving. Taken together, these findings indicate that the emotional rewards of giving are detectable in people living in diverse societies and support the possibility that the hedonic benefits of generosity are universal.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Altruism
  • Child, Preschool
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Gift Giving*
  • Happiness*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Reward*
  • Rural Population*
  • Social Behavior*
  • Vanuatu