Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan have found that reflecting on what we’ve given, rather than what we’ve received, may lead us to be more helpful toward others.
The study is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
In the study, Adam Grant and Jane Dutton wanted to understand how reflection, in the form of expressive writing, might influence prosocial behavior.
They found that the receipt of gifts or favors from another person might cause an individual to be obliged to help that person, but the motivation to help doesn’t necessarily extend to other people.
Moreover, reflecting on what we’ve received from others may even cause us to feel dependent and indebted. This finding lead the researchers to wonder whether thinking about times when we have given to others might be more effective in promoting helping.
They hypothesized that reflecting on giving could lead a person to see herself as a benefactor, strengthening identity as a caring, helpful individual and motivating one to take action to benefit others.
In their first experiment, the researchers studied fundraisers whose job was to solicit alumni donations to support various programs at a university.
The researchers randomly split the fundraisers into two groups: One group wrote journal entries about recent experiences of feeling grateful for receiving a benefit and the other group wrote journal entries about recent experiences in which they made a contribution that enabled other people to feel grateful.
Grant and Dutton then measured how many calls each fundraiser made per hour in the two weeks before and the two weeks after the week that they spent journaling. Because the fundraisers were paid a fixed hourly rate, with no fundraising goals or incentives, the number of calls they made reflected voluntary effort to help raise funds for the university.
As the researchers hypothesized, the fundraisers who wrote about giving for just two or three days increased their hourly calls by more than 29 percent in the following two weeks. The fundraisers who wrote about receiving, however, showed no change in the number hourly calls made.
In a second experiment, the researchers randomly assigned college students to one of three groups, requiring them to list three ways they had recently given help, list three ways they had recently received help, or list three different foods they had eaten in the last week.
When the participants came to the university’s behavioral lab a few weeks later to pick up their payment for participating in the study, they were given a form describing the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. On the form, the participants were asked whether they would like to donate any portion of their $5 payment to an earthquake relief fund.
Nearly 50 percent of participants who had reflected on giving donated, compared to 21 percent in the beneficiary group and 13 percent in the control cohort.
Grant and Dutton believe that the findings from these two experiments have important real-world implications.
“Helping, giving, volunteering, and other actions undertaken to benefit others play a critical role in protecting health, promoting education, fighting poverty and hunger, and providing disaster relief,” the researchers write.
Experts believe self-reflection is a powerful tool to motivate helping and volunteering behaviors that benefit individuals and communities. And, as a general rule, we should reflect on positive experiences and think about what we’ve given to others—not only what we’ve received.