Giving from the Heart

Giving from the Heart: The Role of the Heart and the Brain in Virtuous Motivation and Integrity

Christina Karns, Ph.D. (co-PI)
Research Associate, Brain Development Lab, Department of Psychology
University of Oregon, Eugene, OR

Mark Alfano, Ph.D. (co-PI)
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands

Joshua “Gus” Skorburg, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Researcher
Duke University, Durham, NC

Project Summary

When you open your checkbook for your charitable donations, is it a struggle to write that check as you think about what you could do with the money for yourself? Or is giving a fluent act – easy and joyful – as you consider the good that will come of your donation? Aristotle might say that fluent and joyful generosity is virtuous, while the struggle to give represents a developmental step on the way to virtue. We undertook this project with the idea that the virtue of generosity consists of various components: values that we would explicitly endorse, and implicit associations that guide our actions through embodied responses in the nervous system. When giving is fluent and easy, it shows that the various parts of the virtue of generosity are linked or coordinated, what we call “integrity”. Fluent generosity shows that the struggle between rewards to the self versus rewards to others is resolved, representing an aspect of the self that is integrated and stable.

Taking a cognitive psychology perspective, we first outlined potential measurements that would assess whether a person consciously or “explicitly” saw being generous as a value that they identify with. We used new and established questionnaires and donation choices to measure the degree to which each person explicitly endorsed the virtue of generosity. However, like all self-report measures, these can be biased by how people want to be seen by others. We reasoned that there would also be implicit associations with generous values that could assess the degree to which each person tacitly valued generosity. The standard task measuring implicit associations, the IAT, can be methodologically unreliable, so we developed a giving task to measure response times for how quickly people would donate money versus keep money for themselves.

The overall idea was to measure the relationship between explicit generous values and implicit generous values, our theoretical construct of integrity. So we also developed a new self-report integrity measurement to test whether the relationship between explicit and implicit values predicted self-reported integrity.

In a key methodological and theoretical advance, we took a cognitive and affective neuroscience perspective to assess how integrated generosity was supported in the nervous system. The idea that the self is embodied is not a new one, but physiological measurements of this theoretical construct are lacking. We measured rapid reward and attention responses in the brain to self-gains and to donations using electroencephalography (EEG). Thus, we could test the degree of automaticity in generous or selfish acts during the donation task. We also measured the physiological response of the heart to examine automatic responses to reward and loss and to assess the degree of stress or self-regulation in the autonomic nervous system during the donation task.

Overall, our project sought to advance the construct of the self and motivations-toward-virtue through measuring relationships between explicit and implicit aspects of generosity and relating them to a theoretical model of “integrity” as their alignment. This idea of alignment, and a drive toward integrity as a key aspect of the self, can be applied to other virtues as we continue to expand on this line of research.

Significant Research Accomplishments

To date, the outputs that demonstrate the tangible success of the project are a large empirical dataset, two draft theory manuscripts, and multiple conference presentations. Our team members have also published several projects that were not directly funded by this grant, but were informed by our interdisciplinary collaboration. There have also been “spin-off” projects that were directly the result of this grant, such as a smaller Templeton-funded project initiated by graduate students Skorburg (Philosophy) and Livingston (Psychology) on the neural instantiation of the moral self and a book chapter on neural perspectives on gratitude and generosity in progress by Karns for a volume edited by Robert Roberts (series editor co-PI Alfano).

IAT tasks – Measures of Implicit Value Associations

We developed and tested three different versions of the Implicit Association Task. (1) A pronoun based task (‘me, myself, I’ versus ‘they, themselves, others’) (2) A version based on identity-based preferences. (3) An ‘ideographic’ version using email addresses, names, etc. to sort into ‘me’ vs. ‘other’ categories. We have tested more than >200 subjects in online testing batteries. Implementing the pronoun based IAT task in our in-lab testing battery. Our plan is for the IAT data and analyses, whether or not they lead to a peer-reviewed publication, to be made available to other researchers through an open-source platform.


We will continue to work on our new questionnaire measures (Fluent Generosity and Value Integrity) and will continue to collect data to determine their reliability and validity. Early results are promising.


We collected the full multimodal testing battery in 103 participants (in-lab questionnaires, IAT tasks, the Piggybank Donation Task, cardiac electrophysiology, and EEG). Processing, measurements, and database consolidation are complete for the autonomic measures, heart-rate variability and pre-ejection period with EEG/ERP to follow. With our multimodal dataset spanning philosophically informed self-report, behavior, and physiology, we will continue to investigate how the brain and autonomic nervous system work together to support generous decision-making.


Our interdisciplinary team of scientists and philosophers continue to develop our theory and implement of our research goals. Our philosophers have deepened their understanding of neurophysiology gaining insights into the promise and limitations of these techniques. Our scientists are developing measures and experiments in ways that can contribute to age-old questions in philosophy. We have all improved in our fluency in speaking to interdisciplinary audiences as well as to the public. We developed and taught and engaging course in psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy of morality with students crafting arguments and analyses related to social justice and morality. We are looking forward to capitalizing on this momentum in the future as we continue the project. This grant has spurred several additional ventures, Alfano’s publications on moral psychology, Skorburg’s grant on the moral self and interdisciplinary postdoctoral position, and Karns’ continuing work on gratitude and generosity.


  • Karns C.M., Alfano M., Skorburg G. (March 2015) Giving from the heart: The role of the heart and the brain in virtuous motivation and integrity. Interdisciplinary Moral Forum. Marquette University. Milwaukee, WI.
  • Karns C.M. and Skorburg G. (May 2016) Generous fluency in the heart and brain. SMV Project Conference, Notre Dame University.
  • Karns C.M., (Nov 2016) Morality, Moral Philosophy, and the Humanities in the Age of Neuroscience. Kent State University Morality Conference
  • Karns, C.M., Moore, W.E., Mayr, U. (2016) Gratitude, Giving, and Gains: An fMRI study of change with gratitude practice. Emotions pre-conference. Society for Personality and Social Psychology. San Diego, CA.
  • Karns, C.M. (2017) It’s the thought that counts: The neural interaction of person and valence in everyday social and non- social scenarios that elicit gratitude or distress. Social Affective Neuroscience Society, Los Angeles, CA.
  • Karns, C.M. (2017) Everyday moral reasoning: the role that people play in the neural processing of social and non-social events that elicit gratitude or distress. Cognitive Neuroscience Society, San Francisco, CA.
  • Skorburg J.A., Karns C.M., Alfano M. (June 2017) The electrophysiology of virtue. Society for Philosophy and Psychology. Johns Hopkins University. Baltimore, MD.
  • Skorburg J.A., Alfano M., Karns, C.M. (2017) Integrating social neuroscience, moral psychology, and philosophy. Social Affective Neuroscience Society, Los Angeles, CA.
  • Karns C.M., (April 2017) Gratitude in a changing brain. Learning & the Brain Conference on “Positive, Resilient Minds: The Science of Promoting Student Grit, Gratitude, and School Success” in Arlington, VA. Positive Resilient Minds. Learning and the Brain. 2017
  • Karns C.M., Alfano M., Skorburg JA. (June 2017) Giving from the heart: The role of the heart and the brain in fluent generosity and integrity. SMV Project Conference. University of Oklahoma. Oklahoma City, OK.
  • Alfano, M., Karns CM, & Skorburg
JA. (Nov 2017) The electrophysiology of virtue. 2nd Bi-Annual Workshop of the Experimental Philosophy Group, Osnabrück, Germany.

Publications & Manuscripts

  • Karns, C.M., Moore WE, Mayr U. (2017, December 12). The cultivation of pure altruism via gratitude: A functional MRI study of change with gratitude practice. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 
  • Karns, C.M. (Draft submitted) Neuroscience Perspectives on Gratitude. Book chapter for: The Moral Psychology of Gratitude. Eds. Robert Roberts and Daniel Telech. Series: The Moral Psychology of Emotions. Mark Alfano (Series Ed.), Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Karns C.M., Alfano N., Skorburg J.A. (In Revision). Giving from the heart: How the brain and body support integrated generosity. Invited chapter for the SMV Project edited volume.
  • Alfano, M., Skorburg, J.A. & Karns, C.M. (In Preparation). Moral thinking, more and less quickly.

Other Outputs


2017 Conference