Neuroimaging and Charitable Bequests
Posted January 1st, 2014

Neuroimaging and Charitable Bequests

By: Russell James

Professor Russell James, J.D., Ph.D., CFP® of Texas Tech University is responsible for the university’s on-campus and online graduate program in charitable financial planning. This month’s article is the final installment in a three-part series highlighting new findings from his latest research into the demographics of charitable estate planning.

About 80 percent of Americans engage in charitable giving each year, but only about 5 to 6 percent of Americans over 50 have a charitable estate plan in place.1 Even among substantial donors ($500+) over age 50, fewer than one in 10 have a charitable estate plan.2 Clearly, donors who decide to make a charitable bequest have a different mindset.

My colleagues and I decided to find out just how much bequest giving differs from other forms of charitable giving by using neuroimaging (brain scanning) to learn which parts of the brain are particularly active for those considering charitable bequests as compared with current giving.


Charitable giving and the brain

A handful of neuroimaging studies have explored current charitable giving. Researchers have found that charitable giving increases activity in reward areas  (“giving is enjoyable”) and in regions used for social interaction (“giving is social”).3  One study traced this social component to two different brain regions: one used for taking another person’s perspective and the other for feeling empathy.4

This two-part model makes sense. If donors don’t take the perspective of the beneficiary, there is no reason to give. If donors take this perspective but have no empathy for the beneficiary, giving still won’t be compelling.

For our study, we wanted to learn what was different about charitable bequest decisions when compared to current giving decisions. We placed subjects in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine and asked them questions about 28 different large charities. Specifically, we asked “If asked in the next three months, what is the likelihood you might give money to ____?” and “If you signed a will in the next three months, what is the likelihood you might leave a bequest gift to _____?”

The neuroimaging results showed that bequest decisions more strongly engaged two particular brain regions. One was an area used for taking an outside perspective on one’s self (precuneus) and the other was a visualization area (lingual gyrus).5 Previous studies had shown that these same brain regions were engaged when visually recalling one’s own life and life stories.

In a sense, charitable bequest decisions looked like visualizing the final chapter of one’s own autobiography (i.e., “visualized autobiography”). This fits with other research results. A recent dissertation involving in-depth interviews with planned bequest donors found that “when discussing which charities they had chosen to remember, there was a clear link with the life narratives of many respondents.”6  When donors are considering leaving a bequest to charity, the most important question they tend to ask themselves is, “Which charity (or cause) is part of my life story?”

We then took this theory out of the lab and tested different marketing messages for their ability to increase self-reported willingness to leave a charitable bequest. In a test of over 4,000 respondents, the most effective messages involved sharing the life stories of donors whose charitable bequest plans will continue to impact the world long after death.7 These life stories fit perfectly with the “visualized autobiography” concept. Compelling stories make it easy for a donor to visualize a bequest commitment as part of his or her life story.

In another experiment we found (not surprisingly) that bequests to friends and family members more strongly engaged brain regions of memory and emotion than did charitable bequests. This may explain why bequest giving to charity is relatively rare, and also point to an important bequest fundraising strategy. When a charity can connect its cause to a donor’s friend or family member (living or deceased), the likelihood of receiving a bequest may increase. In fact, in the previously mentioned survey, asking about family members who were connected to a particular cause increased the01-2014-5willingness to leave a bequest to support that cause.8 Once again, the distinguishing factor in influencing charitable bequest decision making was the ability to connect with the donor’s life story.

Editor’s note: This article underscores the importance of reaching donors at a time in their lives when they have a rich repository of life experiences. Donors at earlier stages may have not yet reached the point at which they can evaluate their experience over a full lifetime. See the November issue of Give & Take for the first installment in this series of articles in which Dr. James observes that a majority of donors who leave bequests make the decision after age 75. It is at this point that many donors are contemplating their final wills, and often the preceding will did not include charitable provisions.

1. Statistics from Giving USA and American Charitable Bequest Demographics
2. James, R. N., III. (2009). Health, wealth, and charitable estate planning: A longitudinal examination of testamentary charitable giving plans. Non-profit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 38(6), 1026-1043.
3. Moll, J., Krueger, F., Zahn, R., Pardini, M., de Oliveira-Souza, R., & Grafman, J. (2006). Human front-mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(42), 15623-15628
4. Hare, T. A., Camerer, C. F., Knoepfle, D. T., O’Doherty, J. P., Rangel, A. (2010). Value computations in ventral medial prefrontal cortex during charitable decision making incorporate input from regions involved in social cognition. The Journal of Neuroscience, 30(2), 582-590.
5. James, R. N., III, & O’Boyle, M. (in press). Charitable estate planning as visualized autobiography: An fMRI study of its neural correlates. Non-profit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly.
6. Routley, C. J. (2011). Leaving a charitable legacy: Social influence, the self and symbolic immortality (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of the West of England, Bristol, UK. Page 220
7. James, R. N., III (2013). Inside the Mind of the Bequest Donor. CreateSpace: Charleston, SC
8. James, R. N., III (2013). Inside the Mind of the Bequest Donor. CreateSpace: Charleston, SC


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