Investing in karma by doing good deeds

July 9, 2012

applying for jobs, 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 published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests that even when an outcome is out of our control we often act as though we can still get on the good side of fate by doing good deeds.

According to lead researcher Benjamin Converse, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Psychology at the University of Virginia, the research 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. Converse and co-authors Jane Risen and Travis Carter, both of the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, 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.

"Everyone is familiar with the basics of reciprocity, the idea that if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. We wondered if people think this way even when they aren't dealing with another person at all, but rather with the universe," says Converse.

The researchers 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, Converse and his colleagues 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, after reflecting on important, unknown outcomes – such as the results of pregnancy attempts, graduate admissions, and court proceedings (all responses given by participants in the priming condition) – people 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 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, Converse and his co-authors 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 their control (such as whether new 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).

In their fourth experiment, the researchers wanted to extend the karmic investment hypothesis by examining possible consequences. They surmised that if people do as a bargain with the universe, they might be more optimistic about the likelihood of receiving their desired outcome.

Again, the researchers recruited job seekers and asked them to complete one of the same surveys from the previous study. They then asked participants if they wanted to complete another 1-minute survey that would add $50 to the lottery prize. This reward opportunity was designed to be so desirable that everyone would accept. For half of the participants, the extra $50 reward would benefit a charity, while the other half of participants would keep the extra reward for themselves.

in the outside-control condition who had fulfilled their karmic bargain by helping charity were the most optimistic about their job prospects, suggesting that our karmic investments may pay off by boosting our optimism about uncontrollable outcomes.

The authors point out that these findings are in some ways quite counterintuitive. "You might expect that people would be more selfish when thinking about the things in life that they want, but that are beyond their control" says Converse. "But we found that this experience makes them more likely to reach out and help, at least when they are given the opportunity to do so."

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. 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," they conclude.

Explore further: Reminders of mortality increase concern for environmental legacy

Related Stories

Reminders of mortality increase concern for environmental legacy

June 26, 2012
When we turn on the A/C in the summer, our first thought is probably one of relief. If it's 100 degrees in the shade, we're probably not thinking about how our decision might influence the environmental legacy we leave for ...

Death anxiety increases atheists' unconscious belief in God

April 2, 2012
New research suggests that when non-religious people think about their own death they become more consciously skeptical about religion, but unconsciously grow more receptive to religious belief.

Decisions, decisions, decisions ...

July 18, 2011
We all make numerous decisions everyday; unconsciously or consciously, sometimes doing it automatically with little effort or thinking and yet, at other times, we agonize for hours over another. Why do we make these choices ...

Recommended for you

History of stress increases miscarriage risk, says new review

August 17, 2017
A history of exposure to psychological stress can increase the risk of miscarriage by upto 42 per cent, according to a new review.

Study finds children pay close attention to potentially threatening information, avoid eye contact when anxious

August 17, 2017
We spend a lot of time looking at the eyes of others for social cues – it helps us understand a person's emotions, and make decisions about how to respond to them. We also know that adults avoid eye contact when anxious. ...

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...

Precision medicine opens the door to scientific wellness preventive approaches to suicide

August 15, 2017
Researchers have developed a more precise way of diagnosing suicide risk, by developing blood tests that work in everybody, as well as more personalized blood tests for different subtypes of suicidality that they have newly ...

US antidepressant use jumps 65 percent in 15 years

August 15, 2017
(HealthDay)—The number of Americans who say they've taken an antidepressant over the past month rose by 65 percent between 1999 and 2014, a new government survey finds.

Child's home learning environment predicts 5th grade academic skills

August 15, 2017
Children whose parents provide them with learning materials like books and toys and engage them in learning activities and meaningful conversations in infancy and toddlerhood are likely to develop early cognitive skills that ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.