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From Humbug! to Humble: The Power of the Scrooge Effect

A new study finds thoughts of our mortality can make us more generous.
(Photo: camknows/Flickr)

(Photo: camknows/Flickr)

Last fall, we reported on a study that found people who are reminded of their own mortality are prone to buying more stuff. If that made us seem a little shallow (life is short, so let's go to the mall!), newly published research provides some consolation.

It finds mortality reminders can also make us more generous. What's more, they also increase that feeling of well-being that comes from doing a good deed.

"Acting pro-socially in the face of mortality thoughts effectively soothes death anxiety, and in turn produces psychological satisfaction," according to Polish researchers Tomasz Zaleskiewicz and Agata Gasiorowska, and Pelin Kesebir of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, they report finding this dynamic even in situations "where anonymity was fully assured, and no conceivable external pressure" to behave altruistically could be felt.

Reinforcing your self-image as a generous person, or helping to support your group, are effective ways of temporarily banishing the fear of dying.

The research is grounded in Terror Management Theory, an extension of the seminal ideas of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. According to this school of thought, humans buffer their fear of mortality by attempting to transcend death, either literally (via belief in an afterlife) or symbolically (by devoting your life to a larger cause that will live on).

One result is that, after being reminded of their coming death, people tend to cling more tightly to the ideas and associations that give their lives symbolic meaning. Zaleskiewicz and his colleagues note that altruism "is one such source of value."

In a 2002 paper, a group of researchers labeled this "the Scrooge Effect." In their study, Americans reminded of their own mortality gave more money to an organization with a stated goal of helping Americans, but not to one that had an international focus. That confirmed another facet of terror management: Thoughts of death lead us to intensify our allegiance to organizations we identify with, such as religion and country.

This new study, titled "The Scrooge Effect Revisited," featured three experiments "in which participants received a financial endowment, and were asked to allocate it between themselves and another, anonymous person." In each case, they were subsequently asked "to report their own satisfaction" with the transaction.

The participants were all Polish university students, who began by filling out either a "fear of death" questionnaire, or one dealing about dental-pain anxiety. Those in the first group responded with a yes or no answer to such statements as "I am very much afraid to die."

In the first experiment, after completing a short crossword puzzle (a task to temporarily distract them), the students were presented 30 Polish zlotys (about $8 American) along with two envelopes, one labeled "Me" and the other "Player Two." They were told they could divide the money any way they wanted, and were further informed that one-third of participants would "receive real payoffs after the study."

Participants who had been primed with thoughts of death put significantly more money in the "Player Two" envelope. What's more, they "derived higher joy from giving more."

The same results were found for the other two experiments. In one, participants could give some or all of their allotted funds to their university's Student Government fund. Those who had been reminded of their mortality gave more to the common cause. What's more, the more money they donated, "the higher was their reported satisfaction."

"It seems that for participants in the mortality salience condition, donating a substantial (amount) was helpful in suppressing the death-related cognition evoked earlier," the researchers conclude.

Together, the results suggest increased levels of personal satisfaction are driving this higher level of giving to others. Reinforcing your self-image as a generous person, or helping to support your group, are effective ways of temporarily banishing the fear of dying.

So the happier, more content Scrooge that emerges after his visit with the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (in which he sees his own name on a tombstone) isn't such a sentimental ending after all. Rather, it reflects a truism of human nature that Dickens intuitively grasped: When the prospect of our own demise is looming, there are real emotional benefits to being a better person.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.