Monday, February 25, 2013

I'm Happier When I'm Forced to Give?

Prosocial Spending and Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universal 

Lara Aknin et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, forthcoming 

Abstract: This research provides the first support for a possible psychological universal: Human beings around the world derive emotional benefits from using their financial resources to help others (prosocial spending). In Study 1, survey data from 136 countries were examined and showed that prosocial spending is associated with greater happiness around the world, in poor and rich countries alike. To test for causality, in Studies 2a and 2b, we used experimental methodology, demonstrating that recalling a past instance of prosocial spending has a causal impact on happiness across countries that differ greatly in terms of wealth (Canada, Uganda, and India). Finally, in Study 3, participants in Canada and South Africa randomly assigned to buy items for charity reported higher levels of positive affect than participants assigned to buy the same items for themselves, even when this prosocial spending did not provide an opportunity to build or strengthen social ties. Our findings suggest that the reward experienced from helping others may be deeply ingrained in human nature, emerging in diverse cultural and economic contexts.

Sometimes people caricature the "happiness" research.  But the above is beyond caricature.  It just works fine, quoted verbatim and in context:  If the citizens in country A are forced to give money to citizens in country B, then BOTH countries will have happier citizens.  It is the opposite of the usual claim made about free trade:  If an exchange is voluntary, both parties are better off.  Here, if a transfer is INvoluntary, then both parties are better off.  A genuinely remarkable finding, a new step in scientific research.


  1. P. 14: "what Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan (2010a) term “WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic)"


    Might there be a wee bit of bias in the acronym?

  2. About the part: "quoted verbatim and in context: If the citizens in country A are forced to give..."

    I am not seeing that in the paper. Granted, I kind of skimmed it twice.

    It does seem to me, though, the authors have a hard time with feeling good about one's self, and how that might actually be part one's economic self interest. "In contrast to traditional economic thought—which places self-interest as the guiding principle of human motivation..." Why not acknowledge that economic self interest can be compatible with (and not in contrast to) rewards experienced from helping others? Our friend Russ Roberts interviewed John Allison on this topic (2007), and I thought it was very enlightening.

    There is a price for everything, right?

    Thanks for the post, Big M.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?