imagesWhen and for whom is giving rewarding? I spend a lot of my time thinking about whether, when, how and why giving leads to emotional benefits for the giver. To date, my collaborators and I have published results demonstrating that spending as little as $5 on others leads to greater happiness than spending the same amount on oneself (Dunn, Aknin & Norton, 2008). Similar findings have been found in rich and poor countries around the globe (Aknin et al., 2013) and in small-scale traditional societies (Aknin, Broesch, Hamlin & Van de Vondervoort, 2015), supporting the possibility that the emotional rewards of giving may be a shared feature of human behavior. Along with many collaborators, my students and I are exploring the various forms prosociality takes and how far the warm glow of giving extends.

Not all gifts are good: How do motives for generosity shape the consequences of giving? Generous acts are often thought to emerge from care or concern of others, but prosocial acts can be motivated by selfish concerns as well. For instance, someone might make a charitable donation to impress a romantic interest or collect a tax credit. Or, someone may help a colleague with a challenging task to make a positive impression on the boss. How does helping with self-oriented motives impact the experience and emotional rewards of giving for the giver? And how does it feel to receive a gift given with ulterior motives? New work with Dylan Wiwad and Yuthika Girme examines these questions.

Automatic evaluations of self and other behavior Humans display a wide range of behaviour, ranging from extreme prosociality (e.g., organ donation) to antisociality (e.g., rape, murder, assault). What accounts for this variability? I recently received a grant to explore one possibility: automatic reactions towards self- and other- interest.

Using social psychology to address inequality Economic inequality in the United States is at its highest since the Great Depression with the top 1% holding 21% of the country’s wealth. People appear quite tolerant of this unequal distribution (Shariff, Wiwad, & Aknin, 2016). But why? One reason may be the Correspondence Bias – the tendency to assume an individual’s behavior or condition is the result of their disposition rather than the situation (Gilbert & Malone, 1995). If people make dispositional attributions for the poor and rich (e.g., they are lazy/hard working, incapable/gifted, or otherwise (un)trustworthy, respectively), observers may see inequality as tolerable, perhaps even desirable. New work Dylan Wiwad, Azim Shariff, Paul Piff, and Angela Robinson is examining whether providing situational information, a strategy previously used to minimize the Correspondence Bias, can increase empathy, assistance, and support for the poor.

When does one kind act predict another? Some of my previous work with Liz Dunn and Mike Norton has demonstrated a positive feedback loop between generosity and happiness, such that reflecting upon a time one committed a kind deed increases happiness levels, and the happier one feels, the more likely they are to engage in a generous act again (Aknin, Dunn, & Norton, 2011). While this feedback loop seems intuitive, these findings conflict with classic moral licensing research, which has shown that committing one kind act actually decreases the likelihood of engaging in another (Merritt, Effron, & Monin, 2010; Monin & Miller, 2003). I’m currently conducting a field study to explore the reason for this contradiction and test one possible explanation.

Giving makes young kids happy Young kids start to engage in helping behaviors before the age of two, but why? One possible reason is that giving, sharing, and helping (forms of prosocial behavior) make the giver feel good and experience a feeling of “warm glow”. Some recent research that I’ve conducted with Kiley Hamlin and Liz Dunn supports this possibility; we found that young kids were happier giving treats away than they were when receiving the same treats themselves (Aknin, Hamlin, & Dunn, 2012). We’re currently running follow up studies at the Centre for Infant Cognition to gain a greater understanding of the ontogenic origins of emotionally rewarding prosocial behaviour.