In January, we introduced two Science and Imagination of Living Generously (SILG) grantees and their research on generosity (SILG was a regranting program conducted by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Additional program details available at GenerosityForLife.org). We’re diving into two more of those research projects now.
Dr. Larisa Heiphetz is a psychologist who runs the social and moral cognition lab based at Columbia University. For this study, she and her colleagues conducted an experiment on moral essentialism (the idea that a particular human characteristic might be innate, inborn, and will never change) and how that interfaced with morality and generosity.
“We’re interested in how children and adults think about right and wrong, and generosity is an important and influential virtue to study in that context,” she said. “We wanted to look at the ways that people think about what it means to be a moral person and how many of their resources they’re willing to give to someone else.”
In one part of the project, Dr. Heiphetz and her team measured the extent to which participants viewed themselves in essentialist terms.
“We had these two competing hypotheses,” Dr. Heiphetz said. “One focused on the idea that if I’m a good person and nothing that I do will change that, then I might not need to be very generous. Why would I need to be generous and show that I’m a good person if I’m innately good? The competing hypothesis was if I’m innately a good person, I might want to be extra generous so that my actions line up with how I perceive myself as a good human being.”
In a different study, they manipulated the extent to which participants viewed other people in essentialist terms. The participants were given an incentive to “give out” to certain people. Some people were described as good and had always been good because of the way they were born, while others were equally good but good because of how they had been treated and what they learned growing up. Bad people were also described in the same terms.
The research team was able to test these hypotheses in several different ways by developing a scale to measure moral essentialism. They found that children were more likely than adults to agree that someone who is a good person has always been and will always be good in the future. While they did not find a strong relationship between generosity and the extent to which someone views moral characteristics in an essentialist way in general, they did find a strong relationship between generosity and the extent to which participants viewed the person to whom they were giving to in an essentialist way. In other words, it was not about how participants conceptualized morality in general but about how they conceptualized the person to whom they were giving.
“For adults who heard about a character described in an essentialist way, there was a benefit to the character being described as good rather than bad. However, it’s better to describe a bad person in a non-essentialist way, as in ‘they’re bad right now because of how other people are treating them, but they might change in the future,’ ” Dr. Heiphetz said.
As a result of this study, Dr. Heiphetz hopes that people expand their thinking about essentialism to include moral qualities and how they can interface with generosity.
“When someone is framing a request for generosity, knowing whether it helps to frame it an essentialist or non-essentialist way is useful,” she said. “In addition, it illustrates an effective way to talk about generosity, while showing parents how to teach kids particular moral values.”
The effect of spirituality or religion on generosity
Dr. Sarah Schnitker of Fuller Theological Seminary is also a psychologist but studied generosity from a very different perspective. Her research focuses on looking at character strength development in adolescents and young people and how spirituality or religion can either help or hinder the process of virtue formation.
She and her two graduate assistants, Tyler Greenway and Abigail Shepherd, honed in a project focused on prayer and generosity.
“We wanted to think about how prayer would affect generosity and what might happen when we frame prayer as a psychological activity and how that would increase or decrease the actual giving behavior of participants,” Dr. Schnitker said.
The study focused on church attendees and their prayers. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to pray for folks being persecuted in Myanmar. From that group, half were randomly assigned to pray for persecuted Christians, while the others were randomly assigned to pray for persecuted Muslims.
Those who were not assigned to pray were asked to read and respond to newspaper articles about the persecuted groups. Half of that group read about the plight of persecuted Christians, and half read about the plight of persecuted Muslims.
At the end of the study, both groups (those who prayed and those who read the articles) were asked whether they wanted to donate part of or an entire incentive to six predetermined charities – two Muslim, two Christian, and two secular.
“We wanted to see if there was a difference if you’re praying for and reading about your own ‘in-group’ (other Christians), or if you’re praying for or reading about the ‘out-group’ (Muslims),” Dr. Schnitker said.
The results were surprising. Dr. Schnitker and her team found that the target of prayer (persecuted Christians or Muslims), did not matter in the study.
“The main finding we had was that the people who prayed donated less of their payment than the people who read the newspaper articles,” she said. “This is not what previous literature has suggested. Most studies have found that prayer leads to positive outcomes. We found, though, that prayer actually led to less generosity in this particular measure of generosity.”
She suggested a possible reason; people who prayed felt like they acted by praying.
“They may have felt that they did something and so didn’t have the drive to act when it came to making a donation,” Dr. Schnitker said.
However, she expressed caution about the findings.
“At this point, it could be other things. It could be that our control condition was really powerful. It could be that this was a fluke. We would like to replicate the study and apply other control conditions to ensure that this is a real effect,” Dr. Schnitker said.
In general though, she finds that studying generosity in relation to religiousness and prayer is vital.
“It’s proven that religious people give more,” Dr. Schnitker said. “So, how can we replicate some of those features of that environment to increase generosity in everyone? What do religious institutions do that is so effective? There’s a lot of applied value in promoting generosity across secular and religious contexts.”
For both scholars, working with the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy provided added benefits.
Dr. Heiphetz: “Working with an interdisciplinary group of scholars expanded my own thinking. I was also able to incorporate some of their suggestions into my research and study.”
Dr Schnitker: “I found it very valuable in terms of promoting collaboration and sharing perspectives on generosity. It’s interesting to hear what other people across disciplines are thinking and how we think about it very differently.
“In addition, my two graduate assistants were really the leaders on this project. Receiving this funding means they could take ownership of the project and that led to building their professional development as scholars. That’s very exciting.”
Abby Rolland is the blog content coordinator for the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.