faculty digest

Why We Bargain with Fate, One Good Deed at a Time

Professor Jane Risen reveals how we deal with uncertainty by subconsciously making a deal to help others.




risenMost people, at some point in their lives, want a certain outcome so badly that they think of striking a deal with the universe: a good deed done for good karma in return. But do people ever act on these thoughts? A new study by Jane Risen, associate professor of behavioral science, and her coauthors at the University of Virginia reveals that when people are eagerly awaiting an uncertain event, they are more likely to engage in virtuous behavior.

In their paper, "Investing in Karma: When Wanting Promotes Helping," published in the upcoming issue of Psychological Science, Risen writes, "People often behave as if they can influence outcomes they know they cannot, exhibiting signs of illusory control and outright magical belief." Risen created a series of lab experiments that tested this mode of thinking. She asked people to think about an uncertain event weighing on their minds. Then she subtly presented them with an opportunity to do a good deed.

In the first experiment, one group of students was asked to write an essay describing how they hoped an uncertain situation would be resolved. Essay topics included issues revolving around pregnancy tests and court proceedings. A control group wrote essays about routine tasks. Then, as the participants prepared to leave, they were asked to donate their time to a tedious but charitable task. The group hoping for beneficial outcomes volunteered at a much higher rate than the control group.

To ensure participants were motivated by the goodness of the cause, the researchers modified the experiment. Some participants, rather than donate time to a charity, were asked to take part in an activity purely for their own amusement. In this case, the group hoping for favorable outcomes was no more likely to participate than the control group. Only a good deed with potential cosmic rewards spurred the wanting group to action.

Wanting a favorable outcome made the participants more generous with their money as well. A second experiment took them to a professional-looking donation center, where they were asked to review promotional materials for charities. The researchers noted offhandedly, "whether you donate is completely up to you." The people hoping for good news donated nearly twice as much as the control group. To determine whether donation resulted specifically when people needed help from "a higher power," researchers asked another group of participants to write about uncertain decisions that were within their control (e.g., accepting a job offer versus staying in school). As expected, their donations were unexceptional. Only the participants awaiting an outcome beyond their control hoped to impress the universe with a burst of generous giving.

Having supported their theories in the lab, Risen and her colleagues took their experiments into the field. They visited a job fair and distributed two surveys to job seekers. One survey emphasized aspects of the job hunt that were within their control. The other emphasized aspects outside of their control. Recipients of the latter survey offered bigger donations to charity. Interestingly, in a final study, those who were randomly assigned to complete a "karmic bargain" by donating to charity after thinking about the job hunt process as being outside their control reported a greater sense of optimism about their job prospects compared to participants who did not complete such a bargain.

An article in the Financial Times highlighted the study's findings, noting that, "investing in karma might be a positive way for individuals to cope with waiting for the outcome of an uncontrollable event." As Risen notes, individuals do not have to believe in karma to have karmic thoughts. - Dan Kedmey

Photo by Chris Lake

Last Updated 1/16/14