Feeling Good about Giving: The Benefits (and Costs) of Self-Interested Charitable Behavior

by Lalin Anik, Lara B. Aknin, Michael I. Norton & Elizabeth W. Dunn

Overview — Helping others takes countless forms and springs from countless motivations, from deep-rooted empathy to a more calculated desire for public recognition. Social scientists have identified a host of ways in which charitable behavior can lead to benefits for the giver, whether economically via tax breaks, socially via signaling one's wealth or status, or psychologically via experiencing well-being from helping. Charitable organizations have traditionally capitalized on all of these motivations for giving, with a recently emerging focus on highlighting the mood benefits of giving—the feelings of empowerment, joy, and inspiration that giving engenders. Indeed, if giving feels good, why not advertise the benefits of "self-interested giving," allowing people to experience that good feeling while increasing contributions to charity at the same time? HBS doctoral candidate Lalin Anik, Professor Michael I. Norton, and coauthors explore whether organizations that seek to increase charitable giving by advertising the benefits of giving are making claims supported by empirical research and, most importantly, whether such claims actually increase donations. Key concepts include:

  • Happier people give more and giving makes people happier, such that happiness and giving may operate in a positive feedback loop (with happier people giving more, getting happier, and giving even more).
  • At the same time, charitable organizations should be concerned about the possibility of crowding out their donors' proclivity to donate in the longer term by incentivizing them (via gifts, etc.) in the short term.
  • While offering donors monetary or material incentives for giving may undermine generosity in the long term, preliminary research suggests that advertising the emotional benefits of prosocial behavior may leave these benefits intact and might even encourage individuals to give more.
  • Future research is needed to disentangle the possible costs and benefits of self-interested giving. The authors are actively engaging charitable organizations to conduct these studies.

Author Abstract

While lay intuitions and pop psychology suggest that helping others leads to higher levels of happiness, the existing evidence only weakly supports this causal claim: Research in psychology, economics, and neuroscience exploring the benefits of charitable giving has been largely correlational, leaving open the question of whether giving causes greater happiness. In this chapter, we have two primary aims. First, we review the evidence linking charitable behavior and happiness. We present research from a variety of samples (adults, children and primates) and methods (correlational and experimental) demonstrating that happier people give more, that giving indeed causes increased happiness, and that these two relationships may operate in a circular fashion. Second, we consider whether advertising these benefits of charitable giving - asking people to give in order to be happy - may have the perverse consequence of decreasing charitable giving, crowding out intrinsic motivations to give by corrupting a purely social act with economic considerations.

Paper Information