In January, April, and July, we introduced you to six 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 are available at GenerosityForLife.org).
In this article, we’re diving into the last two research projects, which were authored by psychologists studying generosity, in this case among older adults.
Charitable giving and mortality among older adults
Molly Maxfield, Ph.D., is a psychologist at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS) who studies older adults, how individuals cope with the knowledge of mortality (also known as terror management theory), and age differences in response to reminders of mortality.
“I enjoy working with older adults because they have a different perspective on life,” Maxfield explained. “According to some researchers, that’s because older adults have a more limited time perspective, which creates a push for them to clarify their priorities and goals, and sharpens their focus on aspects of life that they find rewarding.”
It occurred to Maxfield that one priority for older adults could be charitable giving. One of her previous research studies focused on older adults and how they value leaving something for future generations.
“Based on those findings, I wanted to see if attitudes would translate into behaviors,” she said. “In other words, would older adults give to others in need if reminded of their own mortality?”
She organized her study to include adults of all ages (18-85+) from UCCS and the surrounding community. Every individual was given $15, and then asked a series of questions about different personality traits and tendencies. Half of the individuals were randomly assigned to respond to open-ended questions about how they thought and felt when they pondered their own mortality, while the other half (the control condition) answered similar questions, but with a focus on their thoughts about experiencing dental pain and visits to the dentist.
After the study was completed, Maxfield and her team told the participants that they were running a charity drive in the lab, and asked if they wanted to donate.
The findings illustrated that older adults followed their words with actions.
“Older adults (aged 65+) who were reminded of mortality donated significantly more to charity than older adults in the control condition who thought about dental pain,” Maxfield said.
“Middle aged individuals (ages 40-64) didn’t differ in their giving at all between the two conditions, while younger adults (ages 18-39) actually donated less when they were reminded of mortality, compared to reminders of dental pain in the control condition.”
By statistically controlling for income, Maxfield and her team were able to eliminate the possibility that older adults donated because they have more income.
“Overall, older adults appeared less interested in saving the money for themselves and more interested in giving it to charities,” she said. “They want to give to future generations, and appear to do so even more when reminded of the finite nature of life.”
Maxfield views these decisions by older adults to donate more when reminded of their mortality as potentially impactful for nonprofits and how they handle discussions around planned giving.
“If you think about this concept within estate or financial planning, then how can nonprofits frame that planning so that they encourage individuals to make financial decisions that fall in line with their personal values?” she asked. “It’s a chance for nonprofits to frame planned gifts as an opportunity. How can staff members use these conversations to discuss legacy with their donors?”
In the future, Maxfield plans on continuing to study older adults and how they cope with aging. “I’d really love to learn more about values-based financial planning, and how that impacts us; knowing that we are mortal creatures who won’t be around forever.” With this in mind, she hopes to study investigate larger scale charitable giving, in the form of charitable bequests.
Relationships and generosity
At Michigan State University (MSU), psychologist William Chopik, Ph.D., studies close relationships, how they change, and how people in them change over time and across the lifespan. His interest in generosity stems from analyzing the benefits of relationships: “Relationships make us feel better – they help us enact healthier behaviors, including making us more prosocial.
“In this study, we examined where generosity comes from and the outcomes of being generous,” Chopik said. “So we thought about how others oftentimes compel us to do things, whether we like it or not. Part of that is they compel us to do more generous things, and maybe by investing more in prosocial tendencies, we become happier and/or healthier.”
For the study, Chopik and his team used existing data to answer some of their questions.
“Even though these data already exist, people hadn’t thought of generosity as something that links couples together,” he said. “The existing data, which follows 4,000 couples over eight years, worked well for studying personality.”
Similar to Maxfield, Chopik also studied older adults, but focused on how generosity acts as a way to link older couples together.
After controlling for a variety of factors, he discovered that while your own personality affects whether you volunteer, the personality characteristics of your partner also matters.
“If you’re paired with someone who’s more conscientious, more agreeable, warmer, nicer, more industrious, etc., that affects the ways in which you volunteer your time,” he said. “In that case, you’re more likely to volunteer and as a result, you engage in healthier behaviors, such as being more physically active. You’re healthier if you’re more active, and you’re more active if you’re volunteering.”
Building on this study, Chopik and his team are now working on tying generosity to mortality.
“We found that our partners’ personalities, as well as our own, can force us to behave in more generous ways. So the next step is to try to determine if people stay alive longer because they’re more engaged in their community through activities like volunteering and acting in prosocial ways,” he said.
In the long run, he hopes to situate generosity and couples within a lifespan framework.
“Generosity is a route through which individuals can achieve healthiness and happiness,” Chopik said. “I hope to learn more about how volunteering or charitable giving changes over time, and how those behaviors are affected by individuals’ and couples’ personalities.”
How did these emerging scholars benefit from working with the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy?
Chopik: “The feedback given at our annual meetings with the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy research team and the other funded researchers was incredibly helpful. It made the project stronger by having this community of intelligent people share their thoughts and ideas about generosity.
“The grant also funded a student’s education here at MSU. By working on the project, he was also able to gain experience and earned a job right after graduating.
“In addition, there are a lot of things we don’t know about regarding generosity, so it’s an encouraging and exciting time for this kind of research.”
Maxfield: “I found the opportunity to participate an incredible experience. It helped me learn about charitable giving not only from diverse psychological perspectives, but from economics and sociological lenses as well. The school also connected me to additional research that’s occurring in this particular field, and helped me explore different concepts of giving and generosity.
“I’m very happy to have had this opportunity.”