New research shows that people waiting for an important, uncontrollable outcome — such as finding out about a new job or the results of medical tests — will do good deeds with the expectation that the universe will return the favor.
This phenomenon is known as “investing in karma.”
According to lead researcher Benjamin Converse, assistant professor of public policy and psychology at the University of Virginia, the research was inspired by the kinds of deals many of us make in which we promise that if we can just make it through some trying situation we’ll be better in the future.
The researchers wondered if these kinds of deals might be part of a phenomenon in which we bargain with the universe.
“Everyone is familiar with the basics of reciprocity, the idea that if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” Converse said. “We wondered if people think this way even when they aren’t dealing with another person at all, but rather with the universe.”
To test their hypothesis, the researchers conducted a series of experiments.
In the first, the research team primed some participants with thoughts of uncontrollable outcomes, asking them to write about an important, unknown outcome they were currently awaiting, while other participants just wrote about their daily routines. Participants were then asked if they wanted to donate their time to do additional work for the lab, the proceeds of which would go to provide food for hungry community members or wishes for terminally ill children.
The researchers found that those who had reflected on the important unknown outcomes — such as the results of pregnancy attempts, graduate admissions, and court proceedings — were more likely to volunteer their time to charities.
Those participants, however, were not more likely to volunteer their time for a second task if it was described as “entertaining” and “fun” rather than helpful. This suggests the participants volunteered specifically as way of investing in karma, the researchers said.
These findings were confirmed in a second experiment, in which participants who reflected on an uncontrollable outcome were more likely to make a monetary donation than participants who thought about a controllable unresolved personal dilemma or their personal preferences in making everyday choices.
Following these studies, Converse and his co-authors wanted to see if their findings would hold up in a real-world situation. They found that job fair attendees who had been primed to think about aspects of the job hunt that were outside their control, such as whether new jobs will open up, pledged to donate more of their potential prize money to charity than those who were primed to think about aspects that are within their control, such as learning about the industry.
In the fourth experiment, the researchers recruited job seekers and asked them to complete one of the same surveys from the previous study. They then asked if they wanted to complete another one-minute survey that would add $50 to the lottery prize.
This reward opportunity was designed to be so desirable that everyone would accept. For half of the participants, the extra $50 reward would benefit a charity, while the other half would keep the extra reward for themselves.
Participants who had fulfilled their karmic bargain by helping charity were the most optimistic about their job prospects, suggesting that our karmic investments may pay off by boosting our optimism about uncontrollable outcomes, according to the researchers, who note that these findings are, in some ways, counterintuitive.
“You might expect that people would be more selfish when thinking about the things in life that they want, but that are beyond their control,” says Converse. “But we found that this experience makes them more likely to reach out and help, at least when they are given the opportunity to do so.”
The researchers believe that investing in karma may be a positive way for us to cope with the otherwise unpleasant experience of just sitting around and waiting.
“Even if people don’t actually believe in karma, they may still have an intuitive sense that good things happen to good people,” he said. “If that intuition moves us to donate to a good cause and makes us a little more optimistic in the meantime, that seems like a good thing.”
The research was published in Psychological Science.