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New Research From Chicago Booth on “Investing in Karma”

July 11, 2012

For so many important outcomes in life – applying for a job, waiting for medical test results – there comes a point when you just have to sit back and hope for the best. But that doesn’t mean we always behave that way. New research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the University of Virginia suggests that even when an outcome is out of our control we often act as though we still can get on the good side of fate by doing good deeds.

The faculty researchers say their work, published this month in Psychological Science, was inspired by the kinds of deals many of us seem to make in which we promise ourselves that, if we can just make it through some trying situation, we’ll be better citizens in the future.

In their research, Jane Risen, associate professor of behavioral science at Chicago Booth, Travis Carter, a postdoctoral research associate at Booth, and Benjamin Converse from the University of Virginia wondered if these kinds of deals might be part of a more general phenomenon in which we intuitively bargain with “the universe,” however we might define it.

“Reciprocity is one of the most powerful social norms that people experience, which is why we feel compelled to return favors when someone does something nice for us,” said Risen. “We wondered whether, on some level, people may think about their relationship with the universe the same way that they think about it with individuals, expecting the universe to return favors as a person would.”

Risen, Carter and Converse hypothesized that waiting for an important, uncontrollable outcome may lead people to do good deeds with the implicit expectation that the universe will return the favor, a phenomenon they refer to as “investing in karma.”

In the first experiment, they primed some participants with thoughts of uncontrollable outcomes, asking them to write about an important unknown outcome they were currently awaiting, while other participants just wrote about their daily routine. After the study was supposedly over, participants were asked if they wanted to donate their time to participate in additional work for the lab, the proceeds of which would go to provide food for hungry community members or wishes for terminally ill children.

Just as the researchers hypothesized, people, after reflecting on important, unknown outcomes – such as the results of pregnancy attempts, graduate school admissions, and court proceedings (all responses given by participants in the priming condition) – were more likely to volunteer their time to charities.

Participants in the priming condition were not more likely to volunteer their time for a second task if it was described as “entertaining” and “fun” rather than helpful, which suggests that their helping behavior was not related to general agreeableness, a desire for distraction or an attempt to boost mood. These results suggest that the participants volunteered specifically as a way of investing in karma.

These findings were confirmed in a second experiment, in which participants who reflected on an uncontrollable outcome were more likely to make a monetary donation than participants who thought about a controllable unresolved personal dilemma or their personal preferences in making everyday choices.

Following these studies, Risen, Carter and Converse wanted to see if their findings would hold up in a real-world situation. They found that job fair attendees who had been primed to think about aspects of the job hunt that were outside of their control (such as whether new jobs will open up) pledged to donate more of their potential prize money to charity than those who were primed to think about aspects that are within their control (such as learning about the industry).

The researchers believe that investing in karma may be a positive way for us to cope with the otherwise unpleasant experience of just sitting around and waiting. “Even if people don’t actually believe in karma, they may still have an intuitive sense that good things happen to good people,” they wrote. “If that intuition moves us to donate to a good cause and makes us a little more optimistic in the meantime, that seems like a good thing.”

The journal Psychological Science is published by the Association for Psychological Science.

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