Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose & Prosocial Behavior Purpose & Well-Being

When Getting Less Makes You More Generous

By Alex Shaw


People like to help others and give them rewards for good behavior and they also have a preference for fairness, not wanting to pay others unequally. Although these two behavioral tendencies are often aligned and can mutually infuse one's life with purpose, they can sometimes be at odds with one another. For example, imagine that you have five tickets to a baseball game to give to two hardworking employees. What is the best way to divide these resources? If you value giving people more rewards, then you'd likely want to give three tickets too one employee and two to the other. However, a concern with fairness might push you to give two tickets to each employee and waste the additional ticket to avoid creating inequality. In cases like this, is such waste in the name of fairness inevitable? NPP members Shoham Choshen-Hillel, Alex Shaw, and Eugene Caruso from the University of Chicago Booth recently published a set of studies demonstrating that these two motivations need not conflict—that inequality can be acceptable as long as it such inequality does not entail partiality.

Choshen-Hillel and colleagues investigated this phenomenon by asking participants to decide how resources should be distributed among others either in a way that was equal or unequal. More specifically, participants were told that each recipient already had some resources and were asked what to do with an additional resource: give the resource to one of the recipients (creating inequality) or give the resource to neither (wasting the resource). In addition to asking participants to make this decision, the researchers also asked participants to report how impartial they thought each decision (giving to the recipient or giving to neither) would appear to others. Participants were either third parties or they were self-disadvantaged parties (i.e. they were one of the recipients who would be relatively disadvantaged if the other recipient received more). The authors predicted that self-disadvantaged parties would be more likely to give the resource than third parties. They reasoned that they would get these results because the self-disadvantaged parties would also think that others would see them as less partial than third parties when they chose to give. Thus, self-disadvantaged parties can give more to others without appearing partial (because they would, if anything, be being partial against themselves). 

Image ©: Stewarship - Transforming Generosity 2011

For example, in one representative study, the researchers asked participants to imagine deciding how to distribute a $100 bonus between two employees who had each received a $200 bonus.  In the Self-Disadvantaged Condition they were asked to imagine that they were one of the employees who received the $200 bonus and were asked to decide if another employee (e.g. Juliana) should receive the $100 bonus or if neither of them should. Here, many participants opted to give the bonus to Juliana. In the Third Party Condition they were faced with the same choice (give the bonus to Juliana or not), but here they were not one of the potential recipients. In this case, participants were much less likely to give the bonus to Juliana. That is, participants were more likely to waste the resource in the name of fairness in the Third Party Condition as compared to the Self-Disadvantaged Condition. Why did they do this? People's perceptions of the partiality entailed by the action of giving to Juliana also changed between conditions. That is, giving the resource to others was seen as much more impartial in the Self-Disadvantaging Condition as compared to the Third Party Condition. Importantly, this difference in perceptions of partiality mediated the effect of condition--those who saw giving to others as more impartial were more likely to give the resource to the recipient.  Across several scenarios, involving additional hypothetical dilemmas as well as consequential decisions about how other participants in our lab should be paid, the authors found a similar pattern of results—self-disadvantaged parties were more likely to give resources to others than third parties.

These results indicate the powerful way that behavioral science can be used to infuse our lives with more purpose.  Often in life, we are faced with seemingly dichotomous decisions that force us to make undesirable tradeoffs.  However, this research demonstrates one of the ways in which we can re-frame these decisions by thinking outside the box. These researchers discovered a way to create a truly win-win situation in which resources were not being wasted and people generally thought that the resultant inequality was fair; resulting in a more efficient and purposeful distribution of resources. 


Alex Shaw is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose & Prosocial Behavior Purpose & Well-Being

Previous Post:
To Thine Own Self Be True
Next Post:
Counting the days: How to start preparing for the future


You need an account to comment! Connect to a social account!.

Design By: