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Psychology of Giving Brief

Dec 8 / 16

On October 4th, 2016, CIFAR, in partnership with the Vancouver Foundation, held a Change Makers dialogue that explored the social and economic aspects of giving. This symposium brought together CIFAR Fellows and leaders from community organizations, foundations and businesses who exchanged ideas and insights to better understand how this research could be mobilized into action in their work practices.

Moderated by Robin Cory, Colbeck Strategic Advisors, the event included presentations from: Patrick Francois, Senior Fellow in CIFAR’s program in Institutions, Organizations and Growth and Professor at the University of British Columbia Hall; Lara Aknin, Fellow in CIFAR’s program in Social Interactions, Identity and Well-being and Assistant Professor at Simon Fraser University; and Jacqueline Way, Founder of 365 Give. This report provides a summary of the key research-informed insights presented by CIFAR’s Fellows and the group discussions with Jacqueline Way that followed.


The Origins of Human Prosociality

Humans are a highly prosocial species relative to other species. Prosocial behaviors (e.g. trust, generosity, etc.) in humans are seen not only within a group but across groups and even to the completely anonymous other. This is in contrast to other close genetically related species such as the chimpanzees who exhibit prosociality but only within their own group.

Humans have a hardwired capacity to be norm followers. The origins of human prosociality are still relatively unknown. Through evolution, we as a species developed a flexibility to exhibit pro

Group competition can induce prosociality. Cultural group selection theories suggest that when humans are placed in group (vs individual) competitive environments, more prosocial norms and behaviors are induced. For example, studies on U.S. firms (i.e. a place where people take on a collective task and work against other organizations) have shown that people working in firms in highly competitive sectors exhibited higher degrees of trust towards an anonymous other. Further, the level of trust increased as the level of competition (i.e. number of firms) increased with the sector. This increase in trust was also exhibited at a more macro, state level when the level of competition increased and also at an individual level when one moved from a less competitive to more competitive sector. 

Without competition, people do best individually if they behave selfishly and converge on a norm of selfish behavior. With competition, the best outcome may be achieved by giving. This can be observed through classic public good game experiments in which individuals in a group are given a set amount of money. If they chose to donate some money to the group, the researcher would then multiply that amount to increase the return for the group but the fraction of returns remains the same for the individual. Most participants start off giving but realize it is more beneficial not to give. This is in contracts to experiments where group competition is invoked. In these experiments, if positioned so that two groups were playing against each other and the returns depended on how well the group did relative to the other group, though it was more risky to give, group competition increased the level of both giving and trust. In this group competitive context, if one experiences others giving, they are more inclined to give and converge on a prosocial norm.

Enhancing prosocial norms can enable some groups to succeed and to further enhance the prosociality of newcomers into that group that don’t already exhibit that behavior. Human prosociality is not hard wired but the capacity for it is. Humans have a tendency to seek out norms and then to align to them. Given this, if individuals perceive a prosocial norm to be the right norm, they will tend to follow. 

Social networks and group identity play important roles in establishing and redefining norms. Individuals are most likely to follow the norm of groups that are most closely associated with their identity (e.g. such gender, race) but also by people who are thought of as successful (and therefore perceived as having the potential to shift norms).


Giving Feels Good

Prosocial spending has emotional benefits. In a study that looked at individual monthly spending patterns, only prosocial type spending (vs spending on oneself) was shown to be a predictor of happiness, even when controlling for income levels of participants. This finding was validated through another study in which students were given either $5 or $20 and told to spend it on themselves or spend on/donate it to others. Those students who spent the money on others, regardless of the amount, were happier than those that spent the money on themselves.

The benefits of prosocial spending are seen in both low and high income countries worldwide. Even in countries with more limited resources than North America, prosocial spending corresponds to higher levels of happiness. For example, providing individuals in both rich and poor (and even small scale and highly isolated) countries with a goodie bag and allowing them to either keep it for themselves or to donate it, those individuals that gave prosocially reported higher levels of happiness.

The emotional rewards of prosocial giving are seen across the lifespan and might be particularly rewarding if it comes with some cost to the giver. Children at age two, when given the opportunity to give a toy monkey a treat, either their own or an identical treat that did not belong to them, showed greater levels of happiness while giving than receiving treats. That children showed highest levels of happiness when giving away their own treat suggests that giving might be especially rewarding even if when it is costly. 

People tend not to intuit the benefits of prosocial behaviors. Individuals are more likely to think that spending $20 on themselves, for example, will make them happier than spending on others. The inability to anticipate the benefits of prosocial giving may actually be a hindrance for engaging in prosocial activity. 

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