What Drives the Holiday Spirit? A Christmas Investigation

What Drives the Holiday Spirit? A Christmas Investigation

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This week on Hidden Brain, we ask why people give to charity, find out how to give better gifts, and learn that re-gifting is a perfectly acceptable response to getting (another) cinnamon spice candle. Then, the musically gifted Adam Cole returns to tie the entire show together with an original Hidden Brain carol.

First, Shankar talks to All Things Considered host Audie Cornish about some research done by economist John List at the University of Chicago. He finds that social pressure actually plays a significant role in our generosity (perhaps more than we’d like to admit).

“Anytime you ask someone why they gave to a charitable cause, the typical response is, ‘I gave because I really want to help another person,’ ” List says. “But when you dig down deeper, that’s not the true motive for why they gave.”

In one study, he ran an experiment with door-to-door canvassers asking for donations to a children’s hospital. A third of the houses received a call saying someone would stop by to ask for donations. A third of the houses were given notice and the opportunity to opt-out. And the final third were told nothing at all. If people gave according to altruism, it shouldn’t matter if they knew a knock is coming.

But what List and his colleagues found is that people were much less likely to come to the door when they were alerted beforehand, and donations dropped by half. List says about 75 percent of the donations the canvassers collected could be attributed to social pressure and just a quarter to altruism.

Stopwatch Science

Dan Pink is back for another round of Stopwatch Science — this time on the theme of giving and receiving. Here are four bits of research that might make you feel more generous — and could even make you a better gift-giver, too:

  1. When choosing gifts, we often lean toward impressive and desirable. Think the latest video game (regardless of difficult it is to play) or a gift certificate to a fancy restaurant an hour away. But researchers found receivers are not so willing to trade off feasibility for desirability, and sticking to, say, movie tickets closer to home might make a better gift. (And what’s the very best way to get the perfect gift? Just ask.)
  2. Re-gifting is a holiday tradition, if a socially deviant one. But maybe it shouldn’t be. Social science research suggests gift-givers like Aunt Irene won’t actually care as much as you think she will if you pass on that Precious Moments snow globe to the next-door neighbors.
  3. If the Grinch and Scrooge have taught us anything, it’s that compassion can be learned. A group of psychologists confirmed this anecdotal evidence in an experiment that found adults who participated in a compassion-training exercise ended up behaving more altruistically than those who didn’t.
  4. Life is all about trade-offs. Sometimes helping others requires compromising a moral or two. Despite Mom and Dad’s nudging us toward moral absolutism, research shows many of us do prefer the consequentialist approach to altruism — we’re willing to cheat a little if it helps others (and no one sees us).

The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison and Maggie Penman. Max Nesterak is our News Assistant. Follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, @karamcguirk,@maggiepenman and @maxnesterak,and listen for Hidden Brain stories every week on your local public radio station.