Thinking about giving, not receiving, motivates people to help others

August 10, 2012

(Medical Xpress) -- We’re often told to ‘count our blessings’ and be grateful for what we have. And research shows that doing so makes us happier. But will it actually change our behavior towards others?

A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests that thinking about what we’ve given, rather than what we’ve received, may lead us to be more helpful toward others.

Researchers Adam Grant of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Jane Dutton of The Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan wanted to understand how reflection, in the form of expressive writing, might influence prosocial behavior. They observed that when we reflect on what we’ve received from another person, we might feel an obligation to help that person, but the to help doesn’t necessarily extend to other people. And reflecting on what we’ve received from others may even cause us to feel dependent and indebted.

The researchers wondered whether thinking about times when we have given to others might be more effective in promoting helping. They hypothesized that reflecting on giving could lead a person to see herself as a benefactor, strengthening her identity as a caring, helpful individual and motivating her to take action to benefit others.

In their first experiment, the researchers studied fundraisers whose job was to solicit alumni donations to support various programs at a university. The researchers randomly split the fundraisers into two groups: one group wrote journal entries about recent experiences of feeling grateful for receiving a benefit and the other group wrote journal entries about recent experiences in which they made a contribution that enabled other people to feel grateful.

Grant and Dutton then measured how many calls each fundraiser made per hour in the two weeks before and the two weeks after the week that they spent journaling. Because the fundraisers were paid a fixed hourly rate, with no fundraising goals or incentives, the number of calls they made reflected voluntary effort to help raise funds for the university.

As the researchers hypothesized, the fundraisers who wrote about giving for just two or three days increased their hourly calls by more than 29% in the following two weeks. The fundraisers who wrote about receiving, however, showed no change in the number hourly calls made.

In a second experiment, the researchers randomly assigned college students to one of three groups, requiring them to list three ways they had recently given help, list three ways they had recently received help, or list three different foods they had eaten in the last week.

When the participants came to the university’s behavioral lab a few weeks later to pick up their payment for participating in the study, they were given a form describing the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. On the form, the participants were asked whether they would like to donate any portion of their $5 payment to an earthquake relief fund.

Overall, 26% of the participants donated some amount of money. Similar to the results of the first experiment, participants who reflected on giving were significantly more likely to donate (46.15%) than those in either the beneficiary (21.43%) or control condition (13.33%).

Grant and Dutton believe that the findings from these two experiments have important real-world implications.

“Helping, giving, volunteering, and other actions undertaken to benefit others play a critical role in protecting health, promoting education, fighting poverty and hunger, and providing disaster relief,” the researchers write.

This new research suggests that self-reflection about giving can be a powerful tool for motivating helping and volunteering behaviors that benefit individuals and communities. When we reflect on positive experiences, it may be worthwhile to think about what we’ve given to others—not only what we’ve received.

Explore further: Giving time can give you time

Related Stories

Giving time can give you time

July 13, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Many people these days feel a sense of “time famine”—never having enough minutes and hours to do everything. We all know that our objective amount of time can’t be increased (there ...

What kind of chocolate is best? The last you taste, says a new study

February 9, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Like to save the best for last? Here’s good news: If it’s the last, you’ll like it the best. That is the finding of a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association ...

Suppressing feelings of compassion makes people feel less moral: study

March 15, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- It’s normal to not always act on your sense of compassion—for example, by walking past a beggar on the street without giving them any money. Maybe you want to save your money or avoid engaging ...

The first step to change: Focusing on the negative

November 11, 2011
If you want people to change the current system, or status quo, first you have to get them to notice what’s wrong with it. That’s the idea behind a new study to be published in Psychological Science, a journal of ...

The word-of-mouth paradox

April 16, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Sarah Moore says that if you want your memorable family resort vacation to stay memorable, move away from the keyboard. Seriously.

Recommended for you

After searching 12 years for bipolar disorder's cause, team concludes it has many

December 15, 2017
Nearly 6 million Americans have bipolar disorder, and most have probably wondered why. After more than a decade of studying over 1,100 of them in-depth, a University of Michigan team has an answer - or rather, seven answers.

Suicidal thoughts rapidly reduced with ketamine, finds study

December 14, 2017
Ketamine was significantly more effective than a commonly used sedative in reducing suicidal thoughts in depressed patients, according to researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC). They also found that ketamine's ...

Do bullies have more sex?

December 14, 2017
Adolescents who are willing to exploit others for personal gain are more likely to bully and have sex than those who score higher on a measure of honesty and humility. This is according to a study in Springer's journal Evolutionary ...

Children's screen-time guidelines too restrictive, according to new research

December 14, 2017
Digital screen use is a staple of contemporary life for adults and children, whether they are browsing on laptops and smartphones, or watching TV. Paediatricians and scientists have long expressed concerns about the impact ...

Eating together as a family helps children feel better, physically and mentally

December 14, 2017
Children who routinely eat their meals together with their family are more likely to experience long-term physical and mental health benefits, a new Canadian study shows.

The iceberg model of self-harm

December 14, 2017
Researchers have created a model of self-harm that shows high levels of the problem in the community, especially in young girls, and the need for school-based prevention measures.

0 comments

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.