Tag Archives: altruism

Empathy Paradox:  Similar Adversity Reduces Compassion

Many intuitively believe that people are more empathic toward those who experience difficulties they also encountered.

Ervin Staub

Ervin Staub

This linkage between challenging life experiences and subsequent empathy was posited by University of Massachusetts’s Ervin Staub and Joanna Vollhardt of Clark University, and confirmed in experiments by Northeastern’s Daniel Lim and David DiSteno.

Daniel Lim

Daniel Lim

However, this connection is more complicated, found Northwestern’s Rachel Ruttan and Loran Nordgren with Mary-Hunter McDonnell of Wharton.

Rachel Ruttan

Rachel Ruttan

The team exposed volunteers to people who expressed dejection in enduring a hardship such as bullying or unemployment.

Participants who recalled similar past hardships remembered them as less distressing than they were originally experienced, and were more likely to harshly judge others in similar circumstances for their difficulties in enduring the situation.

Antonin Scalia

Antonin Scalia

In fact, volunteers who previously coped with severe bullying felt less — not more — compassion for current bullying victims.

Likewise, those who had faced greater difficulty with unemployment had less empathy for people who were currently jobless.

This confirms the “tough love” approach implied in the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s directive to Americans dismayed with the 2000 election outcome: “Get over it!”

Mary-Hunter McDonnell

Mary-Hunter McDonnell

However, when the the volunteers’ adversity experiences differed from the current suffers’ difficulties, participants were more compassionate.

The “empathy gap” emerged only when survivors of similar hardships showed less understanding for current suffers.

  • -*How do you reduce the “empathy gap” in workplace situations?

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Power Increases Responsibility, Generosity toward Future Generations

Leigh Plunkett Tost

Leigh Plunkett Tost

Power can increase future perspective, feelings of social responsibility, and intergenerational generosity toward others, according to University of Michigan’s Leigh Plunkett Tost, Kimberly A. Wade-Benzoni of Duke University, and University of Idaho’s Hana Huang Johnson.

Priscilla Chan, Mark Zuckerberg

Priscilla Chan, Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg and Pricilla Chan’s sizeable gift of Facebook stock on the occasion of their daughter’s birth is a recent example.

Katherine DeCelles

Katherine DeCelles

This finding contrasts previous reports that power tends to cause people to act in more self-interested ways with peers, particularly “in the presence of a weak moral identity,” according to University of Toronto’s Katherine DeCelles, D. Scott DeRue of University of Michigan, Harvard’s Joshua Margolis, and Tara L. Ceranic of University of San Diego.

Kimberly Wade-Benzoni

Kimberly Wade-Benzoni

Focusing on previous power experiences also was linked with a longer-term time perspective among more than 110 participants who wrote about a time they experienced power over others.
Volunteers in studies by Tost’s group reported greater willingness to allocate charitable donations to a cause with long-term benefits than one addressing an immediate need, compared with a matched group that didn’t write about a previous power experience.

Hana Huang Johnson

Hana Huang Johnson

In another task, more than 230 volunteers also wrote a power prime, then chose between allocating a $1,000 bonus to themselves or another participant now or a larger amount in the future.
Participants who recalled a power experience were more likely to allocate a greater future bonus to themselves and someone else.

Scott DeRue

Scott DeRue

Tost’s team suggested that people with intergenerational power typically feel responsible for ensuring others’ long-term interests, manifested in generous behavior to younger generations.
DeCelles’ findings suggest that moral identity may interact with intergenerational relations to influence people to act with less self-interest and greater altruism.

Joshua Margolis

Joshua Margolis

In additional studies, more than 160 participants were randomly assigned to influence tasks that other group members performed.
The controlling participants reported greater willingness to allocate more future lottery winnings to another group member compare with volunteers who did not control others’ assignments.

Sonya Lyubomirsky

Sonya Lyubomirsky

Many of these paradoxes of generosity and altruism are investigated through University of Notre Dame’s Science of Generosity initiative.
One promising project is led by University of California, Riverside’s Sonya Lyubomirsky, who explored “the how” and “myths” of happiness.

She currently investigates “ripple” and contagion effects of generosity propagation in work settings, and argues that performing generous acts makes the giver, receiver, connector, and observer happier.
In addition, she posits that workplace generosity promotes a positive workplace climate.

Tara Ceranic

Tara Ceranic

Feelings of power seem to invoke a sense of responsibility to ensure and enable others’ interests.
This insight can benefit non-profit organizations seeking increased donations by highlighting that those with decision-making authority have the power to shape the performance and outcomes of the generations to come.

-*To what extent do those with organizational power demonstrate a longer time perspective and willingness to enable the next generation’s well-being?

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Previous blog posts have outlined the varied positive effects of focusing on previous power experiences, and on time perspective’s relationship with investment choices.

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Ask for What You Want: You Have More Influence Than You Think – For Good or Ill

Most people underestimate the likelihood that requests for help will be granted, particularly after experiencing previous refusals, according to Stanford’s Daniel Newark.

Francis Flynn

Francis Flynn

He collaborated with Stanford colleague Francis Flynn and Vanessa Lake Bohns of University of Waterloo in four studies that examined help-seekers’ beliefs about how past refusals affect future compliance.

They showed that help-seekers were more likely to believe that a previous refusal would be followed by another refusal in response to a similar request in the future.
This seems a logical extension of “past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.”
However, this is not supported by Newark and team’s findings.

Help-seekers actually underestimated the actual compliance rate of potential helpers who had previously refused to help, suggesting most people agree with a subsequent request, often to reduce discomfort of rejecting others’ overture for help.

Vanessa Bohns

Vanessa Bohns

Participants estimated they would need to ask about 10 people in order to have three agree to lend their mobile phones for brief calls.
In fact, these volunteers needed to ask only six people for help, 40% fewer than expected, suggesting that most people have a cautious or pessimistic bias about the likelihood that others will provide assistance.

Volunteers requested two favors of strangers on the Stanford campus:  Complete a brief survey and take a letter to a nearby post office.
Help seekers predicted that people who refused the first request of completing the survey would be much less likely to take the letter to the post office.

More people agreed to the second request than to the first request, showing that after people refused a request, they were more likely to agree the second time.
Requestors tend to “anchor” on the first refusal, and hesitate to make a second request.
However, this finding suggests that requestors have a greater chance of success after initial refusal, and that this is the time to muster resilience and persistence.

Bohns and Flynn explained that requestors and potential help-seekers analyze help requests from different perspectives:  Requestors focus on the magnitude of the “ask,” whereas potential helpers consider the inconvenience costs of saying yes in relation to the interpersonal and self-image costs of saying no.

Newark and team suggest that requestors expand the pool of those they ask, not just those who reliably and consistently agree.
These individuals are typically overburdened by requests, and those who are more selective in their assistance are underutilized — and may be willing to assist.

Bohns and Flynn previously demonstrated that potential helpers tend to underestimate help-seekers’ discomfort and embarrassment in asking for assistance, so may be less willing to help underutilized formal support programs.
The researchers found that the most effective way to increase help-seeking is to encourage helpers to focus on reducing help-seekers’ subjective discomfort in asking rather than advocating the practical benefits of asking for help.

Mahdi Roghanizad

Mahdi Roghanizad

More recently, Bohns collaborated with University of Waterloo colleagues Mahdi Roghanizad and Amy Xu to extend this focus on the impact of interpersonal discomfort in non-altruistic situations such as deciding whether to commit an unethical or illegal act.

People who observe and influence the unethical act but don’t participate (“instigators”) underestimated their influence over those who actually commit the asocial acts, according to Bohns and team.

Volunteers enlisted people they didn’t know to tell a small untruth (“white lie”) or commit a small act of vandalism after predicting the ease of enlisting others in these acts.
In related investigations, online participants responded to hypothetical vignettes about buying alcohol for children, and taking office supplies home for personal use.

In all studies, influential bystanders underestimated their influence on others when they suggested engaging in unethical acts.
Further, interpersonal discomfort often caused participants to commit the suggested act to avoid a decision and action that contradicted the instigator’s suggestion.

These results suggest that most people inaccurately estimate their influence – for good or ill, particularly in situations that can evoke interpersonal discomfort.
At the same time, Bohns and Flynn reported on related finding that employees’ systematic underestimate their influence over others in the workplace.

This pessimistic bias can limit employees’ willingness to:

  • Lead business transformation initiatives
  • Recognize personal contributions to others’ performance issues
  • Voice concerns about unethical workplace practices or wrongdoing.

Most employees underestimate their potential influence on others and organizations, and expect their efforts to be futile.

Bohns and Flynn argue that this underestimation bias may be mitigated or reduced by five moderating variables:

  • Comparative judgments
  • Objectification of an influence target
  • Actual degree of personal influence in contrast to perceived influence
  • Means of influence, ranging across incentives, suggestions, reinforcements, punishments
  • Organizational culture. 

These findings provide encouragement to ask for what you want, even after rejection.
In addition, they suggest that you have more influence over others than you expect, whether when asking for help, a sale, or collusion in a questionable act: “Use with caution.”

-*How do you assess your likelihood of getting what you want when you ask?
-*How likely are others to influence you by evoking social discomfort to increase your compliance?

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Executives with Daughters and Sisters: More Generous?

Michael Dahl

Michael Dahl

Cristian Dezső

Cristian Dezső

Male CEOs paid employees more after the birth of their first child when it is a daughter, but paid employees an average of $100 less annually after the birth of a son, according to Michael Dahl of Aalborg University with University of Maryland’s Cristian Dezső and David Gaddis Ross of Columbia Business School in their study of more than 10,000 Danish companies between 1996 and 2006.

David Gaddis Ross

David Gaddis Ross

Female employees typically received higher wages after the birth the CEO’s first child of either gender, and were less adversely-affected than their male colleagues by wage decreases after the birth of CEOs’ children.

Paul Van Lange

Paul Van Lange

People with more sisters tended to show more generous “pro-social” behaviors in laboratory studies of 600 volunteers who played a simulation game requiring decisions about resource-sharing with strangers, according to Paul Van Lange of Free University in Amsterdam with colleagues Ellen De Bruin, Wilma Otten, and Jeffrey Joireman of Washington State University.

Jeffrey Joireman

Jeffrey Joireman

Alice Eagly at Northwestern University suggests that men with sisters are significantly more likely to help others, based on her meta-analysis of 172 research studies.

Alice Eagly

Alice Eagly

In addition, she noted that men tend to help women more than other men.

Men behaved more generously when the cost was minimal in a modified dictator game, according to James Andreoni at the University of California, San Diego and Lise Vesterlund at the University of Pittsburgh.

James Andreoni

James Andreoni

In contrast, they noticed that women demonstrated greater generosity when the cost was high.

Lise Vesterlund

Lise Vesterlund

Andreoni and Vesterlund suggest that men are more responsive to price changes when mens “demand curves for altruism” cross those of women.
As a result, in this lab simulation, men behaved either extremely generously or selfishly, but women shared gains more equally.

Women’s direct presence on corporate boards – rather than their influence as sisters or daughts –  was correlated with increased economic value, according to Dezső  and Ross’s evaluation of the S&P 1,500 firms’ financial performance between 1992 and 2006.
Boards that included women generated an average of 1 percent more economic value – more than $40 million each – when the firm’s strategy is focused on innovation.

-*What corporate impact have you seen of male executives with daughters and sisters?

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