Business

Feeling generous? Thank your future self

By Mary Ellen Egan     
February 26, 2014

From: Magazine

Photo by Dustin Whitehead.

Do you think your life will change much in the next year? If so, it could be a good time for a charity to ask you for a donation. According to research by Assistant Professor Daniel M. Bartels, with Trevor Kvaran and Shaun Nichols of the University of Arizona, your generosity is linked to how connected you feel to your future self. The less connected you feel, the more generous you act.

Connectedness to the future self is called “persistence of self”—what individuals understand about themselves today and how much they think their identity will change over time. If you anticipate that your life will remain unchanged, you may feel a strong connection to your future self. But if you anticipate changing jobs, having a child, getting married, retiring, moving in the next year or so, or otherwise experiencing a lot of change in your life, you may feel less connected to your future self.

Philosophers have long held that persistence of self should impact generosity toward others. Bartels, Kvaran, and Nichols designed four studies that offer evidence it actually does so.

In three studies, participants completed online questionnaires about self-connectedness, to establish whether they felt more or less connected to their selves in one year’s time. Then, the researchers told participants they had a chance of winning $6, and asked them how much of their potential winnings they wanted to donate to a children’s charity. The donations would be paid in either one week or one year.

Each study was a variation on this theme. In the first study, each participant read a brief summary about the charity, then was asked to “think about the important characteristics that make you the person you are now,” before rating how connected she felt to the person she’d be in a year’s time. When Bartels, Kvaran, and Nichols looked at the donation amounts to be paid out in a year, a long enough time frame that personal change was likely to occur, people who rated their self-connectedness as low gave more generously than participants who rated their self-connectedness as high. But as predicted, when they looked at donation amounts to be paid out in just one week, when personal change was unlikely, this effect disappeared.

In the second and third studies, participants read research suggesting that personalities either change or remain stable over time. Once again, participants who had been induced to feel less connected to their future selves contributed significantly more of their winnings when those donations would be paid out in a year (following the personal change). This effect again disappeared when the donations were to be paid out in a week.

The authors contend that when people feel less concerned about their future selves they are more likely to consider the welfare of others and be more generous. “If you think you’ll be substantially different in a year from now, you will be less interested in your own concerns and more likely to help out other people whom you care about,” Bartels explains.

The fourth and final study examined connectedness to other people. Each participant was asked to select 10 people she knew, from “a dear friend” to “a mere acquaintance,” partners and children excluded. Then she rated how connected she felt to each of these 10 people as well as to herself in one, two, five, 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50 years in the future.

Two weeks later, each participant decided how she would split $155 between her future self and a selected person on her list. When the connection to the other person trumped her connection to her future self, she gave between $10 and $20 more to the other person than to her future self.

This may have practical implications for organizations that depend on donations, says Bartels. He says charities should consider asking potential donors to commit to a donation to be collected in the future. For example, charities could ask for a commitment to donate around January 1, when people tend to believe that New Year’s resolutions could change whom they become in the future.

Work cited

Daniel M. Bartels, Trevor Kvaran, and Shaun Nichols, “Selfless Giving,” Cognition, November 2013.