A homeless man stands on the corner holding a cardboard sign with the word “Hungry.” As you check out a few items at the drugstore, the clerk asks if you’d like to donate school supplies to less fortunate children. You find out you’ve been nominated to do the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.
Opportunities to give money to people who need help are everywhere. But which situations prompt you to reach for your wallet? Does it depend on your mood? Your excess cash that month? Does it depend on who’s watching?
According to a new study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, a major factor that may determine whether or not we donate is where we stand on two moral traits: empathy and justice. Although both are positive characteristics, they often appear to pull us in two different directions. Trying to keep a balance can be tricky, and, depending on the situation, we often lean more toward one over the other.
For example, if you believe that a homeless drug addict has caused his own misfortune, and you are pretty sure you wouldn’t have made his same choices, then you will probably lean toward not giving any money. On the other hand, if you can relate to the pain that would cause someone to slip into drugs—whether or not you actually went down that road—then you would probably lean toward empathic giving, even if he did play a role in his predicament.
For the study, researchers asked people to donate to charities in which the donors could believe the sufferers were responsible for their own situation (such as those who cannot keep a job due to drug or alcohol use). Results showed that some participants viewed it as immoral to give a donation to people who were “responsible” for their own situation.
Furthermore, participants who felt this way and also felt themselves to be highly moral were even less likely to donate money. In other words, if they felt that they almost always make moral choices, then they seemed to feel less empathy for the sufferers, and were less likely to donate.
Although there are several factors we take into account before donating to a charity, the research confirms the immense power of empathy. It’s what connects us to one another, and prompts us to reach out. Suffering is universal. In fact, any type of suffering can help us relate to another person’s unique form of suffering, prompting us to reach out and help.
In fact, when researchers asked the participants to recall their own past immoral behaviors, then participants seemed able to empathize with those who were suffering. As a result, they were more likely to donate.