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'Tis the season for giving — but why do we give?

December 20, 2021

An ASU psychology professor shares some insights into the motivation behind the act of giving

One place you’re sure to hear bells ringing during the holidays is the entrance to a retail store, where chipper volunteers stand eagerly swinging their silver chimes and imploring you for alms.

And because it is the season of giving, after all, most of us will reach into our pockets and share what we can without a second thought.

This year, ASU News took a moment to pause and ask why. That is, why do we give so freely during the holidays? And what is the motivation behind it, anyway?

President’s Professor of psychology Douglas Kenrick co-directs the Kenrick-Neuberg Social Cognition Laboratory, where his research has probed the effects of fundamental social motivations on basic cognitive processes. Below, he shares some insights about the holidays and their inextricable link to the act of giving.

Editor’s note: Reponses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Portrait of ASU President's Professor of psychology .

Douglas Kenrick

Question: Why does it feel good to give?

Answer: Some behavioral researchers have argued that we are naturally selected to be charitable because our ancestors survived by cooperating. ASU anthropologists Kim Hill and Magdalena Hurtado have found that people living in traditional small groups in the South American jungles need to share food in order to survive inevitable inconsistencies in food supplies from hunting and gathering. Other anthropologists have noted that most people in such traditional groups have times when they cannot provide for themselves — when recovering from injuries, or when providing for a small child, for example. On this view, we are designed to be kind to others in need.

What I do know from research is that the premise that it feels good to give seems to be true. My favorite study about this was done by UBC psychologist Liz Dunn and her colleagues. They gave people some money and instructed them either to spend it on themselves or on someone else. Those who spent the money on other people were happier the next day, but spending on yourself did nothing for your mood.

My colleague Robert Cialdini did a number of studies indicating that people are more likely to give when they are in a sad mood, and that the giving makes them feel better. He explained it in terms of learning to associate giving with getting praise from others. Small children do not give when they are feeling sad, but the sadness-giving link increases with age.

Q: It seems that people are more charitable during the holidays, in particular. Do you have any insights as to why that may be?

A: A quick look online revealed a graph (the second graph on the page, titled “Charitable site ‘donate now’ click growth: 2014”) that would seem to support that thinking. The graph comes from an investment website, and they attribute the big bump on New Year’s Eve to a desire to contribute while there is still a tax deduction for that year. However, there are also a couple of bumps in December, including on Christmas Eve. I am not sure what kinds of contributions they are measuring here, incidentally.

Assuming those bumps are real, though, I don’t know the answer to your question. One possibility is that people are giving to make themselves feel better in the gloomy months, but this graph doesn’t show January, so if that were true, that peak would continue into January and February. The Christmas Eve peak may come from the fact that people are primed to think about giving gifts because of the norm about Christmas, and if we become aware of other people with real needs, like the person begging in the parking lot, we give. But I don’t really have an educated opinion on that part.

Q: Are there other motivations – aside from altruism – behind why we give?

A: Yes. There is research, some done by Vlad Griskevicius (now a professor of business at the University of Minnesota, but a one-time ASU psychology PhD who worked with Cialdini) that people often give to show off their resources or their nurturance, which can make them more attractive as marriage partners.

Q: Can an individual’s societal status predict their likelihood to be charitable? 

A: Research by Griskevicius and by Mark van Vugt of Amsterdam’s Free University suggests that giving is a way to enhance your status, and to advertise it.

Q: Is there such a thing as selfless giving?

A: People certainly give to help others in countries halfway around the world, from whom they gain nothing. It may make us feel good, which a philosopher could argue is “selfish” in a narrow sense, but if there’s a built-in tendency to feel good when we help, that is sufficient to make us charitable in ways that are selfless enough.

Top photo courtesy of iStock/Getty Images

Emma Greguska

Editor , ASU News

(480) 965-9657

Celebrating the Golden Reunion of ASU graduates from the classes of 1970, '71

December 20, 2021

Each year, the ASU Alumni Association invites graduates from 50 years ago to Tempe, Arizona, for their Golden Reunion, a celebration normally hosted annually during spring commencement.

However, due to the pandemic, the association had to postpone the celebration for the classes of 1970 and 1971 until it was safe to gather in-person. On Monday, Dec. 14, the Golden Grads were able to experience their combined reunion during the first in-person graduation since the pandemic in over two years. Group photo of ASU alumni from the classes of 1970 and 1971 on the steps of Old Main on the Tempe campus. The classes of 1970 and 1971 were inducted into the ASU Alumni Association's Golden Circle on Dec. 14. Photo courtesy of Tim Trumble Download Full Image

The alums started their day at ASU at Mirabella, the university's intergenerational living and lifelong learning complex, for a welcome breakfast and introductions. Each graduate shared the degree they received from ASU, where their life had taken them during the 50 years since graduating and the accomplishment of which they are most proud.

Patsey Brock, ’70 BA in education, shared her legacy of being married to the former Arizona State baseball coach, Jim Brock. Throughout her husband’s 22 years as a coach, players looked up to her as a mother figure, and to this day, she still receives calls from the gentlemen who she had the honor of watching grow. Her Sun Devil story started at ASU and continues on as she is a resident of Mirabella at ASU.

Later that afternoon, the 79 Golden Grads proceeded to Sun Devil Stadium in preparation of undergraduate commencement. While the entire group was looking forward to being a part of commencement and sitting in the front row during the graduation ceremony, for a few men, this was a monumental experience, as it was their first time. During the ‘70s, this group of men were drafted into the Vietnam War and unable to attend their graduation. Fifty years later, they were finally able to participate in this milestone.

The Golden Grads were led into Sun Devil Stadium by Ronald Davini, ’70 BA in education, who was the official gonfalon holder for the classes of 1970 and 1971. Davini was an extraordinary baseball player and led the Sun Devils to the NCAA baseball National Championship in 1967. Titled “Most Valuable Player in the College World Series" as a junior and the "College Player of the Year," Davini went on to become a coach for USA Baseball and the Tempe Union High School District. Though he has many athletic accomplishments, he’s most proud of being honored as one of the top 60 teachers in America by Walt Disney Productions.

Tuesday afternoon, the grads reconvened in Carson Ballroom at Old Main for a luncheon with Sun Devil athletic legends from their era, including Steve Holden, Teddy Olivo, Kevin Woudenberg, John Brooking, Chales Moore, Joe Caldwell, Alan Schmeltz and former coach Larry Kentera. The luncheon began with a presentation from Marshall Shore, Arizona’s "hip historian," who talked about historical highlights from the ‘70s, and the main presentation was given by Ret. Lt. Gen. John Goodman, ’71 BS, former quarterback under Coach Frank Kush and a veteran who served in the U.S. Army and U.S. Marines. Goodman spoke about his memories of Coach Kush and how he would build character and mold men.

The two-day reunion concluded with the time-honored tradition of inducting the Golden Graduates into the Golden Circle. The alums wore the iconic gold robes once more and were individually recognized by Kristine Kassel, president of the ASU Alumni Association board of directors. ASU Alumni Association President Christine Wilkinson gave the keynote address and led the candle-lighting ceremony around the fountain at the steps of Old Main.

The graduates who came back to Tempe experienced a milestone celebration surrounded by their family, fellow graduates from the ‘70s and the graduating class of 2021. The Alumni Association will celebrate the class of 1972 at the spring 2022 commencement.

Morgan Harrison

Director of strategic communications , ASU Alumni Association