Capital Ideas Blog

The science of selfless giving

By Mary Ellen Egan

From: Blog

With the holiday season rapidly approaching, many of us are starting to think about gift giving and charitable donations. The decisions about how much to give and to whom aren't just driven by the size of our bank accounts. There is a complex set of psychological and philosophical factors that shapes how generous we are when it comes to selfless giving.

Philosophers have long theorized that considerations about the persistence of self—your beliefs about your current self and your connection to your beliefs about your future self—impacts individuals' generosity towards others. Daniel M. Bartels of Chicago Booth, with Trevor Kvaran and Shaun Nichols of the University of Arizona, recently tested this seemingly abstract philosophical viewpoint in a series of experiments.

The authors devised four studies that measured and manipulated participants’ beliefs in the persistence of self—such as beliefs, values, and life goals—and measured their generosity when making decisions about charitable donations and sharing money with loved ones.

In three of the four studies, participants filled out an online questionnaire about self-connectedness. They were informed that by participating they'd been entered into a lottery, and had a 25% chance of winning $6. Participants were then asked to decide how much of their potential winnings they wanted to donate to a children's charity, which would be paid out in either one week's time or one year later.

The first group was prompted to think about the characteristics that made them who they are and rate the connectedness to that person in a year’s time on two scales—high or low. The second group was manipulated into feeling more or less connected to their future self by reading research either for or against the stability of personalities over time. The third group was asked about their interpersonal responses—empathetic concern, fantasy situations, personal distress, perspective taking, and altruism—towards friends and strangers.

The results were consistent across the first three studies: People behave more charitably when they think the self changes considerably across time. The authors contend that when people feel less concerned about their future self they are more likely to consider the welfare of others, and will contribute significantly more.

The fourth study looked at connectedness between individuals. Participants were asked to select 10 people they knew on a range from "a dear friend" to "a mere acquaintance." (They weren't allowed to include partners or children.)

In two tasks separated by two weeks, respondents were asked to rate how connected they felt to their future self and to each individual on their list over the next 10, 20, 30, etc., years. After that, the participants had to decide how they would split a certain amount of money, say $200, between their future self and one of the people on their list.

The authors found that people who felt more connected to another person than to their future self acted more generously toward others.

While the authors' findings—that people's decisions about giving to others are significantly affected by their beliefs about the nature of self—it's still not clear how nonprofits or other charities can use this knowledge to their benefit. But it's certainly useful information for us as individuals as we head into the holiday season. If we have a strong connection with our current self, and we behave with a certain amount of self-sacrifice now, we might end up making a bigger impact on the future. And we'll likely feel better about ourselves, too.


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