Understanding Human Behavior: Are We Greedy or Are We Charitable?

People do research to understand the world around them. Physicists find out wonderful things about how the physical world works; chemists discover the dazzling effects of various chemical combinations; and social scientists focus on that elusive character, the human being, to discover whether our amazing quirks are not only interesting but also predictable.

One of the joys of being a social scientist is having the opportunity to read and talk about research that provides new insights into how and why people behave. For example, for one of my recent classes a bunch of PhD students and I discussed the altruism question, i.e., whether people are altruistic or, instead, do good primarily to make themselves feel good. After reading a lot and then engaging in a wide-ranging, give-and-take discussion, some of us felt that people were truly altruistic but others couldn’t get past the idea that people are primarily self-interested.

Recently, however, a new paper has come out that has crystallized these issues very nicely, particularly when we combine its results with those of a previous paper.

The older paper, published in Science in 2008, was written by Elizabeth Dunn and Lara Aknin of the Psychology Department of the University of British Columbia and Michael Norton of the Marketing Unit of the Harvard Business School. They did a series of studies on charitable giving. Their initial test was a national survey of 632 Americans who rated their general happiness, their annual income, and how much they spent in a typical month on expenses and gifts for themselves versus gifts for others and charitable donations. Not surprisingly, people spent much more, in fact over ten times more, for the first category than for the second. But the second category, prosocial spending, was positively related to general happiness and personal spending was not.

They then surveyed 16 employees one month before and 6-8 weeks after each of them had received a profit-sharing bonus. The results resonated with their first study’s: the employees’ prosocial spending in Time 1 was the only factor that was clearly related to their happiness in Time 2, even taking into account the size of their bonus and their overall income.

Like the good researchers that they are, they weren’t satisfied with these findings. Instead, they pushed things further. In a third study, they gave 46 people an envelope that contained either $5 or $20 in the morning and asked them to spend it by 5 o’clock that day, either personally (on a bill, an expense, or for themselves) or prosocially (for someone else or a charity). After 5 pm they rated how happy they were. Once again, the people who spent their money prosocially reported more happiness feelings than people who spent it personally, even controlling for their reported happiness at the start of the day. In addition, spending $5 vs. $20 had no discernible effect. These results suggest that it’s not how much money you spend but how you choose to spend it that matters.

Liz, Lara, and Mike were still not finished. They did one more study so that they could address the obvious followup question: If prosocial giving makes people feel so good, why don’t we do it more? In this, their fourth study, they asked 109 people to tell them how happy Study 3’s spending choices would make them. Their respondents indicated that they preferred to spend money on themselves rather than prosocially and they preferred spending $20 over spending $5. In other words, their predictions about how they would feel did not reflect people’s actual post-choice feelings, on both counts. (Other research reinforces this observation: people are not very perceptive about what actually makes them happy.)

Pretty fascinating, no? Results that were released just this month, by Jonathan Berman and Deborah Small of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania add to these insights in very important ways. Their new research included three studies: two experiments that included 348 undergraduates plus 252 people who completed an online survey. Everyone was told that they would receive money that they could spend on themselves (as either cash or a gift card to Au Bon Pain or Starbucks) or as a donation to a charitable organization (e.g., the Red Cross or UNICEF). The interesting twist was that some people had the opportunity to choose one of these two options while the others had no choice: they were required to take the money for themselves (in cash or via the gift card) or they were required to donate it to a charity. Then everyone indicated how satisfied they were and how much they enjoyed this experience.

Among the people who had a choice, about 60% chose to use the money for themselves rather than for charity. More importantly, the people who were forced to use the money for themselves reported being happier, on average, than everyone else. In other words, when we must spend money on ourselves and it’s not our choice, we can treat ourselves well without feeling that we look selfish or greedy. It wasn’t our fault that we had to do this – an authority figure forced us to treat ourselves well. This appears to be particularly liberating: we get to act self-interestedly without any guilt.

I love these two papers. They tell us a lot about human nature. They are perfect examples of why social science research is so important and so interesting. In addition, if we return to the subtitle of this blog, “Are We Greedy or Are We Charitable?” it is clear that the answer to this important question is “Yes!”


Dunn, E.W., Aknin L.B. & Norton, M.I. (2008) Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness. Science 21: Vol. 319 no. 5870, pp. 1687-1688.

Berman, J.Z. & Small, D.A. (2012) Self-Interest Without Selfishness: The Hedonic Benefit of Imposed Self-Interest. Psychological Science vol. 23 no. 10, 1193-1199.



4 thoughts on “Understanding Human Behavior: Are We Greedy or Are We Charitable?

  1. This is a conclusion which resonates with ones personal behaviour. There is guilt associated with personal spending. If there is a father figure who takes away the burden of guilt one can pursue it. Wonderful and thank you

    Posted by Murali | October 27, 2012, 1:23 am
  2. You may wish to consult your colleagues in the science of evolution department to better understand the underlying genetic reasons for altruism and selfishness. There are several studies and books on the subject of socialbiology including those pioneered by E. O. Wilson (


    Posted by Steve Kennedy | November 9, 2012, 12:23 am
  3. The problem that I, as a scientist, always have with research based on surveys is the Schroedinger Cat conundrum. When you measure something your measurement changes it in some way. Asking a personal opinion about happiness will not result in an honest opinion, a fair number of respondents will attempt to give the answer that is expected, a smaller number will give a response solely aimed at messing up the results. We’d think measuring brain chemistry would be a more accurate measure, but the measurement process of brain chemistry remains invasive (and expensive) and will adjust the response.

    Posted by Tim Dibble | May 30, 2014, 1:09 pm

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