Research from New York University suggests a counter intuitive notion: A sense of unfairness can actually increase volunteerism. Why? It turns out that when people who strongly identify with a group receive information indicating that their group is procedurally unjust, their motivation to engage in group-serving behavior tends to increase.
This new study by psychologist Heather Barry, Ph.D., was conducted using students at New York University, rather than members of a religious group. As Dr. Barry writes, “These students have a history with their university, have given money to it, often live in university housing, visit university facilities frequently, and interact with fellow students, professors, and administrative personnel on a daily basis.”
In other words, their membership is “impermeable,” especially for those who strongly identify with the university community. Barry first tested how much the students identified with the university. Then she gave them what was purported to be a reading comprehension test, created to look like the official NYU website. The fake test described the university procedures for filing a grievance, and for half the students, the description they read was blatantly unfair. For example, the “justice” group read the statement, “You have the right to file a grievance,” while the “injustice” group read, “Some people may have the right to file a grievance.” After the reading test was over, the students were given a sample brochure describing volunteer activities for a fake program called NYU Cares, as well as a chance to sign up.
As it turned out, the students who most strongly identified with the university and were shown the “unjust” website were most likely to want to volunteer their time to support NYU Cares. Other studies have shown that a sense of group justice motivates people to join groups and engage in group activities. But once a person has committed his identity to a group, injustice may be a greater motivator.