UTC study finds selflessness motivating most blood donations

photo Phlebotomist Haley Hampton, right, helps Lee Ann Denham donate blood Wednesday at the Blood Assurance office on Third Street in Chattanooga. In the background, LPN and phlebotomist Kathy Garcia assists donor Jeremiah Lynn.


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Turns out, altruism isn't dead after all.

A new study completed in part by UTC researchers shows that those who donate blood often do so out of a genuinely altruistic motivation. That may seem obvious. But for years, many academics have argued that altruism is a facade, that even when people act selflessly, they often have other self-centered motivations.

"Blood donors never know who they are helping. They are giving their blood but they have no idea about the patient and who gets their blood," said Sevdenur Düzgüner, a visiting scholar at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "It seems like an altruistic behavior. But we cannot easily say all blood donations are altruistic."

Düzgüner studied the motivations of blood donors in the U.S. and in her native Turkey for doctoral research, which found similar altruistic motivations from donors in both countries, with religious motivations playing a role in both Chattanooga and Turkey. But Düzgüner did find distinctions between the two as the very nature of altruism varied across the continents. In the religiously diverse U.S., donors reported a feeling of personal responsibility to give blood. In predominantly Muslim Turkey, the act of giving was viewed as more of a societal responsibility.

"The American mind was more individualistic and the Turkish mind was more collective," she said. "In America, people say this is my own responsibility and this is my own decision. While in Turkey, most people say this is a kind of personal responsibility but the way they perceive them as responsible is a little different. They think as human beings we should help others, that living in a society this is important not just for them as an individual."

In interviewing 80 Turkish blood donors and 60 Americans, Düzgüner examined the role religion played in blood donations and in everyday life. But studying religion and spirituality was easier here than abroad. In the U.S., it's commonplace to discuss religious issues, she said, while in Turkey such conversations are often considered too personal.

In Chattanooga, interviewers probed into the differences between spirituality and religiosity. In the local portion of the study, 58 percent of donors said they are both religious and spiritual. Of respondents, 23 percent said they are spiritual but not religious, and only 3 percent said they are religious but not spiritual.

The distinction between religiosity and spirituality is drawing more and more attention from academics as people increasingly identify as spiritual but not religious. Düzgüner said most Americans defined spirituality as a personal relationship with God or higher being, while religiosity was defined as practicing and following the rules of a church or institution.

In the U.S., spirituality can exist in the absence of practicing religion. But in Turkey, Düzgüner said, the two are interwoven and there is rarely one without the other. Spirituality in Turkey is about practicing and living your religion, while in the U.S. it's often perceived as an emotional, personal experience.

"One insists on the living and one insists on the emotion," Düzgüner said.

UTC Professor of Psychology Ralph Hood, a co-investigator on the study, said the findings are interesting for several reasons. Many psychologists don't buy into the idea of genuine altruism. But Düzgüner's research found people mostly gave blood for selfless reasons, whether it be tied to spirituality or the donor's empathy for others.

"The reason the religious motivation is interesting is because it has to come from some sense of something larger than yourself," Hood said. "Certainly, you can have that with secular beliefs, but it is integral to major religions."

The divide between spirituality and religiosity remains a central focus of contemporary religious psychology, Hood said, as some people leave churches, yet maintain some set of spiritual beliefs.

"These are people who say that the churches have lost the authority to guide them on spiritual matters. So they create their own sense of spirituality," he said. "Some believe in God or a higher power. But they all have this sense of us all being interconnected. So you can't tease out or pit groups of people against each other."

But whether their blood donations were motivated by religious or spiritual motivations, most offered only selfless reasons for their giving, said Christopher Vance, a UTC undergraduate student who interviewed local blood donors.

"They feel like they've been provided a lot in life, so they wanted to provide something," he said. "A lot of people couldn't give money, so what they gave instead was something that was an abundant resource to them."

While academics may find such pure motivations compelling, officials aren't all that surprised at Blood Assurance, the nonprofit that provides blood to more than 70 regional hospitals.

Linda Hisey, executive director of public relations and development, said some people donate blood because they or family members have needed it in the past. Some students donate to receive extra credit.

"But for the most part people give out of the goodness of their heart," she said. "Whenever there's any kind of tragedy or terrible accident, people respond. They help out in the only way they can."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.