Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
May 28, 2019

Giving Feels Good, Even for Criminals

by Katherine Hanniball and Lara Aknin
Person giving flower to another person

We recently asked people to recall a time they used $20 to buy something for themselves or someone else. One person described paying for science class materials for two unknown children at a local shopping mall and then said “spending money on others gives me so much happiness.” Although these may sound like the words of a philanthropist or lifelong volunteer, this response was provided by an ex-offender who reported four felony-level offenses in the past 5 years.

Most of us can think of a time that we did something kind or helpful for another person – whether a friend, family member, or stranger – and felt good afterward. Consistent with our experiences, research has shown that spending money on others promotes happiness for many people. But does being generous and spending money on other people also lead to greater happiness for individuals who have a history of callous and cruel behavior that might seem to signal a lack of concern for others?

We examined this question by investigating whether ex-offenders experience greater happiness from spending money on others than from spending money on themselves. We conducted four studies to test this question.

To start, we recruited 501 antisocially-inclined individuals who reported engaging in recent felony-level criminal activity. Participants were randomly assigned to remember a time that they spent  $20 on either themselves or someone else. We then had participants rate their positive emotions and compared the average level of positive emotions in each group. Consistent with findings within non-criminal populations, ex-offenders in our study who recalled spending money on other people indicated that they felt significantly happier than those who recalled spending money on themselves.

But how do ex-offenders feel after actually engaging in a charitable activity? To explore this question, we recruited two large samples of ex-offenders and gave each person a small monetary payment. In each study, half of the participants were told that they could use their payment to purchase an item, such as a pen or snack, for a needy child. Meanwhile, the other half of participants were told that they could use their payment to purchase a similar item for themselves. Afterwards, we measured their current emotions, allowing us to compare emotion ratings for the  group who spent the money on others to those who spent the money on themselves. Once again, we found that participants who actually donated money to help other people reported feeling happier than those who spent money on themselves.

Finally, because research has demonstrated that tendencies toward antisocial behavior begin in adolescence, we explored whether the “warm glow” of generosity that occurs in adult ex-offenders also occurs in at-risk adolescents currently involved with the legal system To do so, we randomly assigned 64 at-risk youth to one of two conditions. The youth in the first condition could purchase a treat-filled goody bag to keep for themselves, and those in the second condition could purchase a treat-filled goody bag for a sick child at a local children’s hospital. Afterward, all youth rated their happiness. Once more, we found that participants who donated treat bags to children’s hospitals felt significantly happier than those who kept the bags for themselves.

What is especially compelling about the last three studies is that givers provided gifts anonymously, and no one was aware of their kind deed. As a result, it is unlikely that giving made the participants happy because onlookers would view givers positively or because givers could expect the recipient to behave positively toward them in the future. Rather, it seems that ex-offenders in the generous spending condition felt good because they helped someone else.  

Together these findings highlight the human capacity to derive joy from helping others. Indeed, being generous seems to make most people happy. Even ex-offenders, who generally display a lack of concern for others, feel better after behaving generously.  We think that these findings humanize offenders, showing that people who are frequently stigmatized as irredeemable are, in fact, much like the rest of us when it comes to feeling good about being generous.

These results also suggest that generosity may be useful in intervention and rehabilitation programs. For example, intervention programs that offer ex-offenders the opportunity to assist other people not only model positive, prosocial actions, but they may also allow ex-offenders to recognize the emotional rewards they experience from giving.  Although our findings do not speak directly to these ideas, they suggest that benefits of generosity may be far reaching.

For further reading:

Aknin, L. B., Barrington-Leigh, C. P., Dunn, E. W., Helliwell, J. F., Burns, J., Biswas-Diener, R., Kemeza, I., Nyende, P., Ashton-James, C. E., & Norton, M. I. (2013). Prosocial spending and well-being: Cross-cultural evidence for a psychological universal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(4), 635-652

Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2014). Prosocial spending and happiness: Using money to benefit others pays off. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23, 41-47.

Hanniball, K., Aknin, L.B., Douglas, K., & Viljoen (2018). Does giving leads to happiness in at-risk and antisocial populations? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 82, 307-317.


About the Authors

Kate Hanniball is a PhD student in the Clinical Forensic Psychology program at Simon Fraser University. She studies psychopathy, violence risk assessment, and criminal behavior. 

Lara Aknin is an associate professor at Simon Fraser University. She studies the predictors and consequences of human generosity and happiness.

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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