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Kidney Donations More Likely in Places With High Well-Being

Abigail Marsh

“Anywhere from 11 percent to 54 percent of adults say that they'd be willing to consider altruistic kidney donation, but only a tiny fraction of them actually become donors," says Abigail Marsh, associate professor of psychologyin Georgetown College. "Our work suggests that subjective well-being may be a factor that ‘nudges’ some adults into actually donating.”

January 29, 2014 – If you need a kidney transplant, odds are you’re best off in Hawaii, Colorado and eight other states, as well as the Washington, D.C., metro area, implies a new study of altruism by a Georgetown professor.

The study published today in Psychological Science shows that people who live in locations with a high sense of well-being are far more likely to donate a kidney to a stranger. This form of kidney donation is often considered to be one of the most altruistic acts.

“Anywhere from 11 percent to 54 percent of adults say that they'd be willing to consider altruistic kidney donation, but only a tiny fraction of them actually become donors,” explains Abigail Marsh, associate professor of psychology in Georgetown College and senior author of the study. “Our work suggests that subjective well-being may be a factor that ‘nudges’ some adults into actually donating.”

Top Well-Being Areas

Marsh and lead author Kristin Brethel-Haurwitz (G’16), a Ph.D. candidate in psychology with a concentration in lifespan cognitive neuroscience, used kidney donation data from the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network and nationally representative well-being data from the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.

States with higher per capita altruistic donation rates tended to have higher levels of well-being. The positive link held when the researchers combined states into nine broader geographic regions, and also when they examined the data for a single year (2010).

Unique Altruism

Defining altruism, and determining if it truly exists, has long been a topic of debate. Many seemingly selfless acts of altruism can be explained by indirect benefits to the do-gooder, such as a bump in social status or protection from the negative judgments of others.

Non-directed kidney donation is unique, says Marsh, because it meets the most stringent criteria for altruism. Altruistic donors often choose to donate their kidneys to someone they don’t even know, and donating requires the risk of experiencing serious discomfort and pain.

The link between well-being and kidney donation remained even after regional variation in several other factors – such as household income, age, education and mental and physical health – were taken into account.

Understanding Dynamics

Marsh says the findings have clear implications for public health.

“Kidney disease is now the eighth-leading cause of death in the U.S., and living kidney donations are the best hope for restoring people to health who have kidney disease,” Marsh notes. “Understanding the dynamics that lead to this kind of donation might help increase the numbers of donations, which currently are in decline.” 

The link between well-being and altruism may also be particularly important in light of increased focus on policies that focus on societal well-being above and beyond economic well-being.

“Given that altruism itself promotes well-being, policies that promote well-being may help to generate a virtuous circle whereby increases in well-being promote altruism that, in turn, increases well-being,” the study concludes.

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