The Twisted Psychology of Giving

Do we give because we care? Or because it makes us feel good? And what happens if we come into a pile of money?

What would you do with a big influx of cash? Image: Pixabay/Maklay62

Why We Give

Donating to charity has been shown in some studies to make people feel good. Sounds logical. But despite lots of expert explanations about how and why giving makes us happy, the evidence is pretty thin (especially in terms of any lasting happiness). But much of the research is based on experiments in lab settings, involving fake money or points.

The Windfall Effect

When people come into big money — from, say, the lottery or an inheritance — research suggests they’re be more willing to donate a portion of that windfall than they had been willing to part with their regular earnings.

What Gives?

I asked Reinstein why getting the influx of cash tends to turn people from generous to stingy. His team, drawing from their own work and other research, offers several possible explanations, and Reinstein created three cartoons to summarize the ideas:

1. People adapt quickly to having money in hand and are reluctant to part with it. Economists call it “loss aversion” or “endowment effects.”
2. People are more generous with less tangible income and wealth, and the perception of money changes when people actually have more of it.
3. “People pursue reputation and self-esteem by committing to behave pro-socially in the future,” Reinstein said. In some cases, “this can lead people to commit to give greater amounts from outcomes when committing conditionally” for some situation that may or may not happen.

Explainer of things, independent health and science journalist, author, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience and Space dot com.

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