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What Drives The Holiday Spirit? A Christmas Investigation

The holiday season is a time for generosity. Let Hidden Brain help you give better.
The holiday season is a time for generosity. Let Hidden Brain help you give better.

The holidays are about nurturing our best selves: the altruistic, compassionate and generous side. We're told the true joy comes in giving, not receiving.

And it's true, sometimes giving makes you feel good; you do it enthusiastically and out of the goodness of your heart. Other times, when asked to give, you just feel guilt-tripped (like Randy Marsh in this clip from South Park).

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.
Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript :


This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. The holiday season is a time of giving to our friends and loved ones, but also to strangers in the form of donations or charity. On this week's episode, we'll explore the psychology of giving. We look at what motivates us to give to charities...

JOHN LIST: Once they see that there's a solicitor at the door, they say, oh my God, I wish I would have stayed on the couch watching the football game.

VEDANTAM: ...Why it's okay to be a re-gifter and why sometimes lying to small children can be a gift.

DAN PINK, BYLINE: Fair point. But I just think you've totally lost our 8-and-under demographic.

VEDANTAM: Finally, well-known philanthropist Adam Cole is back. He's going to give us the gift of music and tie the episode together with a song...

ADAM COLE, BYLINE: ...Inspired by those really cheesy Christmas specials in which children dance around in brightly-colored sweaters.

VEDANTAM: Lots of us make charitable donations of the holiday season. Maybe you write a few checks; maybe you donate online; or maybe you can ask directly at a shopping mall or the grocery store. But what motivates you to give? And does it change with the situation? One of our producers, Maggie Penman, and our news assistant, Max Nesterak, went to investigate.

MAGGIE PENMAN, BYLINE: So Max and I went to the Giant in Silver Spring, Md. It's a big, suburban grocery store - very busy on a Saturday afternoon. But we came not to shop, but for another reason.

MAX NESTERAK, BYLINE: Right, we waited in front of the Salvation Army collection. We met a nice woman there named Lisa Ingram (ph) with a Santa hat on that said naughty. She was ringing her bell and people were dropping in their loose change, a few dollar bills. I saw someone put a ten in. We really wanted to know why.

PENMAN: And the first person we talked to was Charles J. Barber, Jr. He seemed like a really popular guy - even in our very short interview he kept getting interrupted by his friends walking by.

CHARLES J. BARBER JR.: But - hey, how are you doing?

PENMAN: But he said for him it's about being able to empathize with people who are in need.

BARBER: Some of us are just a stone's throw away from, you know, being, you know, in a bad place too. So hopefully this helps people who need it.

NESTERAK: Next, there was Gerald Backton (ph).

GERALD BACKTON: Extra change that I have - I mean, every little bit counts. I mean, every penny counts. Whatever you can do is just be able to reach out and help.

PENMAN: Stella Laure (ph) was at the store with a friend.

STELLA LAURE: She bought me some tea that costs almost $4. So I said, well, I just saved $4.


LAURE: Exactly, so I'm just going to pay it forward.

NESTERAK: Next, we talked to Lee Schenecker (ph).

LEE SCHENECKER: I just give in general. I had loose change, simple as that.

PENMAN: Does it make you feel good when you give?

SCHENECKER: Oh, I suppose so.

PENMAN: And finally, we talked to Bonnie Scott (ph).

NESTERAK: So why did you put a dollar in the bucket?

BONNIE SCOTT: Why, I like to see people being helped, so why not give them a dollar when I see them?

NESTERAK: Do you give every time you see the Salvation Army bucket?

SCOTT: Yes, I'm guilty (laughter). I do.

NESTERAK: And why do you - why do you think you always, like - every time you go to the store around this time of year, why do you feel like you have to give a dollar?

SCOTT: Well, people need right now. So why not?

PENMAN: And so there you have it, Shankar.

NESTERAK: People give because they want to help...

PENMAN: ...Because it makes them feel good...

NESTERAK: ...And because they want to pay it forward.

VEDANTAM: That was Maggie Penman and Max Nesterak with a lot of very sweet people at the grocery store showing us the positive side of generosity. But there's also a more cynical take. And that was summarized in a recent episode of "South Park" where Stan's dad, Randy Marsh, gets pressured to donate a dollar at the checkout line at a very socially-conscious Whole Foods.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Cashier) OK, sir, looks like your total is 37.83.

TREY PARKER: (As Randy Marsh) All right.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Cashier) OK, and would like to add a dollar donation to help hungry kids around the world?

PARKER: (As Randy Marsh) Oh, no, that's OK.


PARKER: (As Randy Marsh) I'm good.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Cashier) I'm sorry, you don't want to give the dollar to hungry kids?

PARKER: (As Randy Marsh) Not today, thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Cashier) OK, no problem. Window's going to come up and ask if you're helping the hungry kids. Just hit, no, I'm not.

PARKER: (As Randy Marsh) Come on.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Cashier) Try hitting it again. It's the box below the one that says, sure, I'd love to help however I can. Darn thing - sorry, most people give the dollar. I can do this manually.

PARKER: (As Randy Marsh) Look, I give money to charity a lot, OK?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Cashier) Oh, sure you do.

PARKER: (As Randy Marsh) I do. I just don't want to every time I shop for food.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Cashier) That's completely understandable. Have customers speak - OK, if you can speak into the voice decoder and say, I'm not giving anything to the hungry kids.

PARKER: (As Randy Marsh) I'm not giving anything to the hungry kids.

VEDANTAM: So which version of generosity is right - the positive, life-affirming people that Maggie and Max talked with or the guilt-tripped philanthropist at the checkout line? I recently had a conversation about this with All Things Considered host Audie Cornish. We talked about why the reasons you think you give may not actually be the real reason.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: So this is the time of year, as they say, when people are perceived as being more charitable. But is it all altruistic?

VEDANTAM: Well, when you ask people why they're generous, they will tell you that it is all about altruism - that they love a cause or they like to give. But scientists have increasingly sought to test these claims, Audi. I spoke with economist John List - he's at the University of Chicago. He's conducted a number of experiments into why people give. And he explained to me why he thinks this is important to do.

LIST: Anytime you ask someone, why did you give to this charitable cause, the typical response is, I gave because I really want to help another person. But when you actually dig down deeper, that's not the true motive for why they gave. And that's exactly why we need field experiments to try to disentangle reasons why people give.

CORNISH: And I understand, Shankar, one of the reasons may be social pressure, right? And he does some experiments to try to make that case.

VEDANTAM: That's right. So List thinks that social pressure might be playing a very powerful role. And he asked me to think about a scenario that's going to be familiar to lots of us. Here he is again.

LIST: You're sitting on the couch watching a football game, and you hear somebody knocking on the door. And you think, OK, should I get up or should I stay watching the football game? Of course, a lot of people get up and answer the door. But once they see that there's a solicitor at the door, they say, oh my God, I wish I would have stayed on the couch watching the football game.

CORNISH: Right. So basically, you feel like you've been put on the spot.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. And List realized that this scenario provides the perfect mechanism for an experiment that tries to find out how much social pressure plays a role in altruism. List sent volunteers into various Chicago neighborhoods to solicit money for a children's hospital. But there was a catch, Audie. Some households just got a cold call - a knock on the door. Others were alerted ahead of time that someone was going to be knocking on their door and asking for money. A third group was told that the knock was coming and given the choice to opt out. They could say they didn't want to be disturbed. Now, if people were giving only because of altruism, it shouldn't matter whether they know ahead of time that a knock is coming. But List finds that when households are alerted ahead of time, the number of people who answer that knock on the door - it falls by a quarter. When people are given a choice to opt out and say they don't want to be disturbed, donations fall by nearly half. And what List says this shows is how much social pressure shapes generosity.

LIST: What you find is that roughly three-quarters of the dollars given are due to social pressure and a quarter of the dollars given is actually due to altruism.

VEDANTAM: Now, of course, Audie, we should mention this was one experiment and one setting. There're lots of other reasons why people might want to give. People write checks in the privacy of their own homes where there's no social pressure. But in this kind of situation - and there are many like it, you know, you encounter somebody at the door of a store as you're leaving, or maybe you're at church and people are passing the collection plate - in situations like that where social pressure probably plays an enormous role.

CORNISH: So the idea that you're basically uncomfortable saying no to someone's face, right?

VEDANTAM: Exactly. So in this experiment, you don't want the person at the door to think that you're a jerk for not wanting to help a children's hospital. The dilemma, Audie, is that for charities, putting people on the spot is effective, but it might be effective only in the short term because people don't like to be pressured, and they're going to find ways to dodge it. List, in fact, believes charities need to focus on the 25 percent of people who are genuinely motivated by altruism because this is the group of people who are likely to be your long-term supporters.

CORNISH: So what are some of the other strategies that charities and others have found to get us to open our wallets?

VEDANTAM: You know, Audie, there are literally dozens of different things that people have tried. One of them is that when a charity sends you a gift - maybe they send you a calendar - the norm of reciprocity dictates that you send something back to them in exchange. Another idea is that if you can get people to donate their time to a cause, they're more likely to follow up with donations because people's wallets follow their feet.

CORNISH: So I'm feeling a little guilty now for my introduction, right? The norms of the holiday season, right? This is the time of year to give. Does that also create a form of social pressure?

VEDANTAM: You can think about social norms exactly as a larger example of social pressure at work. If you're at a workplace and everyone's writing checks to charities or doing things that are charitable, you feel kind of obliged to do the same.

CORNISH: Shankar, thanks so much for explaining it.

VEDANTAM: Thank you so much, Audie. After this short break, Dan Pink is back for another round of Stopwatch Science. We'll give you some tips on how to be more generous and give better gifts. We'll also tell you about the downside of altruism after this.

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VEDANTAM: Welcome back. We have more ideas about charity and gift giving in our next Stopwatch Science segment. I'm joined as usual by senior Stopwatch Science correspondent Daniel Pink. Hi, Dan.

PINK: Hey, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: As we've heard in the previous segment, altruism is a complicated thing. It makes people feel warm and happy, but it's also driven by social pressure and public norms. On this edition of Stopwatch Science, Dan and I will present two ideas each from social science research looking at the signs of generosity. We get 60 seconds to present each idea, and as we approach the 60-second mark, our producers will gently bring up the music like they do at the Oscars. Dan, if you're ready, your first 60 seconds starts now.

PINK: OK, let's say you're choosing a holiday gift for a friend, and you're deciding between two video games. Now one game is high-end and super cool, but it takes a while to learn. The other is more ordinary. It's easy to start playing, but the game is just medium quality and less nifty. Which gift would you rather give, and which would your friend rather receive? Now those questions are at the heart of a fascinating paper last year in the Journal of Consumer Research. Over eight experiments, researchers found that givers consistently chose desirability, special gifts even if they're a hassle, like that turbocharged video game or a gift certificate to a great Italian restaurant that's an hour away. But receivers consistently valued feasibility just as much. They were equally happy with that easy-to-play video game or a gift card to an OK Italian restaurant around the corner. When we select gifts for people, we often aim for desirability. We want to pick something special, unique, unforgettable. But it turns out that the people on the receiving end...


PINK: ...They don't much care. They're just as happy with gifts that are easy, convenient and practical.

VEDANTAM: I love that, Dan. And I think this speaks to something that you've brought up before on Stopwatch Science, which is that we are often really bad at reading other people's minds.

PINK: We're terrible at it, and we don't know it, so there are some workarounds that we can do. For instance, Francesca Gino, who is a friend of the show, has a great paper from a few years ago showing that the best way to select a gift for someone is to ask them what they want rather than try to divine it through telepathy.

VEDANTAM: All right, I get the message.

PINK: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: Dan, what do you want for Christmas?

PINK: Let's see. Well, actually, my coffee maker broke, so I really just - I just need a coffee maker pretty badly and not a fancy one with special little valves and things that steam and whir things around, just a regular workingman's coffee maker.

VEDANTAM: All right, consider it done.

PINK: All right, Shankar, your 60 seconds starts right now.

VEDANTAM: Many of us think that learning a musical instrument or becoming a gymnast are skills that can be learned or improved with practice. But we don't think of generosity and altruism the same way. We don't think of compassion as a skill when, in fact, there's evidence that you can train yourself to be more compassionate. Helen Weng and Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, along with other researchers, they trained volunteers to think kindly about others to cultivate compassion both for loved ones as well as for strangers. They find in a study published in the journal Psychological Science that when you do this for 30 minutes a day for two weeks, volunteers become more likely to act compassionately towards strangers who are in need of help. In other words, mental training alone can change your ability to respond to the suffering of others. They also find very interestingly, there's evidence, using fMRI scanners, that there are changes in the brain areas of volunteers who get the training, and these brain areas include the inferior parietal cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.


PINK: That's fascinating and heartening. And, you know, Martin Seligman years ago wrote a book called "Learned Optimism" based on his research in learned helplessness. So what we're talking here is learned compassion, which would be no joke, a really great gift in the holidays.

VEDANTAM: I think that's right. And it's part of a larger body of work known as positive psychology, looking at how psychology can help us understand the best of ourselves, not just the worst of ourselves. But, Dan, I'm going to turn it over to you for your second study. Your next 60 seconds starts right now.

PINK: OK, here's a less exalted scenario, all right? Someone gives me a present, say a watch. I open it and think, it's not my style. So I stick it in a new box, rewrap it, and give it to my brother.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

PINK: It's called regifting. And it's offensive, right, a social taboo. Well, a set of studies by Gabrielle Adams at the London Business School says maybe not. Adams and colleagues at Harvard and Stanford set up several experiments in which some people were gift givers and others were gift receivers. Then they had some of the receivers repackage their gifts and give them to someone else. Turns out, over and over again, the regifters overestimated how much the givers of the original gift would be offended. They thought the givers would be shocked, hurt, appalled by their regifting, but most givers said, hey, it's your gift now. The title is essentially passed to you. Do whatever you want.


PINK: The stigma of regifting wasn't much of a stigma at all.

VEDANTAM: Dan, I want to thank you for sanctioning my inner regifter.

PINK: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: I feel completely liberated now in ways that should be very interesting to watch over the next few weeks.

PINK: Well, that's great because I got a really special present for you.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

PINK: High in desirability but really difficult to use, so you just give it to somebody else and you'll feel better.

VEDANTAM: Will do.

PINK: All right, now your 60 seconds for your study, Shankar, starts right now.

VEDANTAM: All right, this is also a study that looks at altruism, except, Dan, it looks at the downside of altruism. It's a study by friend of the show Francesca Gino at the Harvard Business School. You just mentioned her a moment ago. Along with Shahar Ayal and Dan Ariely, Gino found that people are more likely to cheat when their behavior is hidden. That's not surprising. Here is the part of her study that caught my eye. When people feel that their cheating can help another person as well as themselves, cheating goes up substantially. When being dishonest can help an entire group, cheating goes up even more. What's fascinating to me here, Dan, is how the hidden brain weaves together these different motives. Wanting to help others is a good thing. In this case, people use a positive motive to justify being dishonest. Now I know it's the holiday season, Dan, but I'm going to make a little editorial statement here.

PINK: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: One of the things that many of us do is we lie to children about the existence of Santa Claus. We perpetrate this act of mass dishonesty.

PINK: (Laughter).


VEDANTAM: But we do it because we say it's in the common good.

PINK: Fair point, but I just think you've totally lost our 8 and under demographic.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) All right, there you have it. Give gifts that are useful, train yourself to be more compassionate, beware of the downside of altruism, and regift shamelessly.

PINK: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: If you get caught, tell people Dan Pink told you to do it. Dan, thank you so much for joining us.

PINK: My pleasure, I think.


VEDANTAM: That was Daniel Pink, our senior Stopwatch Science correspondent and ace gift giver. Can't wait to see what you got me for Christmas, Dan. We have one last segment for you this holiday. Adam Cole is back to tie this episode together with a song. Adam, welcome back to HIDDEN BRAIN.

COLE: Thanks so much for having me.

VEDANTAM: Did you put in hours and hours of work to create this original song for us, Adam?

COLE: Well, I put in a lot of hours listening to the episode, and I put in a lot of hours listening to holiday music to get inspiration since this is a holiday episode. So yeah, I put together a little piece sort of inspired by those really cheesy Christmas specials...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

COLE: ...In which children dance around in brightly colored sweaters.

VEDANTAM: Wonderful, and did you do this all by yourself, Adam, or did you have help?

COLE: Well, you know, I actually got some help from your producer, Maggie Penman. She sings on this song.

VEDANTAM: Oh, cool.

COLE: And there's also a special guest appearance by someone you said doesn't exist.

VEDANTAM: I can't wait to hear this.


COLE: (Singing) The chestnuts are roasting, and Shankar's stopped hosting so he could go out and sled. There's jingle bells belling, and our hearts are swelling.

COLE AND PENMAN: (Singing) And Dan Pink is yelling about something he read. We're full of Christmas cheer, but let's make one thing very clear.

COLE: (Singing) The gifts you give are thoughtful.

PENMAN: (Singing) But they're also often awful.

COLE AND PENMAN: (Singing) Just give us what we asked for this year. No espresso machine, they're hard to clean, no five-star dinner in Paris. But we'll take your coffee maker and a piece of pizza down the street. If we open a gift and we don't like what we find, we'll just regift it. You won't mind. But it would be terrific if you gave us the specific things that we asked for this Christmas time.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Santa Claus) Now hold on a minute.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Santa Claus) Well, yes, it's me. And I'm here to tell you you're terrible. This isn't the season of receiving. It's the season of altruism.

PENMAN: Altruism, sounds lame, Santa.

COLE: Yeah, what do you know? You're just an act of mass dishonesty we perpetrate annually for the sake of children.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Santa Claus) Nonsense, I'm the living embodiment of the spirit of giving. But I wasn't always that way. (Singing) Before my current role way up at the North Pole, I was a mean old elf. Just like the Grinch, my heart it was pinched, and I only thought of myself. But then I practiced caring 30 minutes every day, and my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex slowly began to change.

PENMAN: I don't know, Santa. Practicing empathy, sounds like a lot of work.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Santa Claus) Oh, yes, a lot of people don't practice compassion. They're only generous when they think people are watching. (Singing) That's why I watch from my sleigh both night and day, a jolly one man at NSA. So if someone poor is at your door, I'll see if you turn them away. If you don't help people with their problems, you'll make my list and not the nice column. It's my duty and my pleasure to apply the social pressure so people will be selfless this Christmas time.

PENMAN: (Singing) Christmas time.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Santa Claus) Merry Christmas, Maggie. Merry Christmas, Adam.

COLE AND PENMAN: Merry Christmas, Santa.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Santa Claus) Merry Christmas, listeners. I'm watching you.

VEDANTAM: That was fantastic, Adam.

COLE: Well, thank you so much.

VEDANTAM: I clearly stand corrected. For all you kids out there, you clearly heard two different voices. Santa is on the episode on tape, so, Santa Claus exists, and I was wrong.

COLE: That's right. I'm glad that you are a big enough man to admit that.

VEDANTAM: Adam, thank you so much for joining me.

COLE: Thanks for having me.

VEDANTAM: HIDDEN BRAIN is produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison and Maggie Penman. Our news assistant is Max Nesterak. Special thanks this week to Daniel Pink and Adam Cole. For more HIDDEN BRAIN, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Our weekly newsletter gives you lots of valuable tips. Send an email to hiddenbrain@npr.org with the word subscribe in the subject line. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.


VEDANTAM: Thanks for listening to HIDDEN BRAIN this year. If you're new to our show, welcome. During the thick of the holidays, when you're ready for a break or some time alone, there are lots of other NPR podcasts you should check out - comedy, pop culture, creative storytelling, insights into politics and economics. NPR podcasts, stuff to talk about with your family and friends or just to listen to yourself when you need a moment of peace, listen now at npr.org/podcasts and on the NPR One app. And happy holidays. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.