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Is Generosity Contagious?

Group norms influence people’s willingness to help others.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: David Ip/Flickr)

As we have seen again over the past week, tragedy can sometimes bring out the best in people, inspiring them to donate their time and money. But why do certain occasions become catalysts for compassion, while others fail to move us in any meaningful way?

The severity of the disaster plays a major role, of course. But newresearch finds another factor is also crucial: whether a humane, benevolent reaction is seen as the social norm.

A research team led by psychologists Jamil Zaki of Stanford University and Erik Nook of Harvard University reports compassion isn’t simply an individual response to a perceived need. Rather, it’s greatly influenced by established standards of behavior.

If you learn that others are acting charitably, it’s more likely that you will follow suit.

“These findings concord with the emerging notion that empathy is not an automatic and involuntary response to others’ emotions,” the researchers write in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. “The social desirability of empathy in a given context can motivate empathetic engagement.”

In five studies, Zaki and his colleagues both demonstrate this dynamic and provide evidence of its “remarkable breadth.” They find that, when empathy is a common response to one set of facts, it can inspire more giving behavior in a different realm altogether.

Those who believed that others had responded empathetically to the vignettes donated more to the homeless charity.

One of their experiments featured 82 people recruited online, who were “informed that we were developing study materials.” Participants read a series of 24 vignettes about homeless people, each of which had been assigned a score between zero and 100, reflecting how empathetic a previous group had found the tale.

The scores were, in fact, a ruse; participants were randomly assigned to a high-empathy group (where the stories elicited concerned responses) or a low-empathy group (where they inspired something closer to indifference).

“Participants were then told about the InnVision Shelter Network, an organization that provides housing, resources and counseling for homeless individuals in Northern California,” the researchers write. “Participants were given a 50-cent bonus on top of their base payment, and were told they could give as much or as little of it” as they desired to the charity.

The results: Those who believed that others had responded empathetically to the vignettes donated more to the homeless charity. Specifically, 31 percent of people in that group “sacrificed half of their potential income to support the homeless,” compared to only 12 percent of those who read the less-empathetic responses.

“People do not just report feeling more empathy when they observe others’ empathetic responses,” the researchers conclude, “but they also act on this empathy by helping those in need.”

In another study, “participants who observed generous charity donations wrote longer and more supportive notes to other participants than those who observed stingy donations — especially when these participants did not explicitly demand support,” the researchers write. “Observing generous charitable donations increased how much empathy participants felt for another person.”

So the perception of empathy creates generosity, and vice versa. The researchers suggest this sort of “pro-social conformity” may “provide individuals with a double dose of positive (emotions), by coupling the value of interpersonal alignment with the warm glow” of giving behavior.

In other words, it makes you feel like a good person, as well as one who is comfortably conforming with one’s peers. A win-win!

These results are worth considering for anyone who is trying to inspire more altruistic attitudes and behaviors, such as charities trying to entice donors. Persuading them to open their wallets should be easier if they believe they are following in the footsteps of their friends and neighbors.

Saintliness, it seems, seldom exists in a vacuum.