Some people are spurred to do charitable acts after the onset of an illness or another traumatic event in their lives, but new research shows that individuals may be inclined to donate more money after reading about extraordinary good deeds of others.
Two years ago, Brent McFerran, an assistant professor of marketing in the Ross School of Business, and Karl Aquino, a business professor at the University of British Columbia, set out to test their hypothesis that news stories that feature exceptional acts of virtue inspire people to donate to charity and do good deeds themselves, compared to stories about positive interaction.
The study, which involved about 800 participants, was published last week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In the study, subjects were randomly given a newspaper article. Half the participants read a story about a couple watching a sunset — representative of positive, optimistic news reporting and good experiences. The other participants read a story that described a 2006 shooting at an Amish school, where the shooter killed several children and then himself. Parents of the victims forgave the shooter and offered money to his widowed wife.
After reading the news stories, participants completed a survey in which they were asked to divide a hypothetical $10 between themselves and an unknown person. This aspect of the study sought to test whether people were more willing to donate to charity based on the reception of pleasant news or to acts of kindness amid difficult times.
The results revealed that participants who read the story about the victims forgiving the shooter gave 32 percent more money to the unknown individual.
The results suggest that the tone of news stories may have a more powerful effect on readers than previously believed, McFerran said.
“Media reports could potentially play a crucial role in the mobilization of history makers if less attention was paid to negative coverage,” McFerran said.
McFerran, who called this the “look in the mirror effect,” pointed to news stories about suicide, homicide and other traumatic events and said the study was conducted to show that this type of reporting is done in excess, with far too little attention being paid to positivity in the world.
McFerran and Aquino concluded that people were more inclined to donate money after reading about extraordinary acts of kindness in the news, rather than pleasant incidents like a sunset.
Aquino wrote in an e-mail interview that what he found most interesting about the study was “how simply exposing people to stories and examples of extraordinary virtue actually led to changes in behavior.”
He added that not only does this exposure alter people’s actions, but it also “seems to change how people view humanity so that it is more positive.”
According to Aquino, the news stories in the study caused people to think about their own lives and how they might become better people. He noted that the study doesn’t indicate the longevity of these effects, though he said he hopes to explore them in the future.
“Terrible situations certainly bring light to certain causes, but a positive story could shed possibly better light into various charitable causes,” McFerran said. ” … We hope this research causes more positive reporting in the future.”