Research & Insights

Some Ghoulish Findings about Fear of Death and Charitable Giving

If you’re looking for a theme for your next fundraising campaign, here’s one you may want to consider: death. We’re serious – new research out of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Wroclaw, Poland and the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that reminding people of their mortality makes them more generous.

To explore the connections between a sense of mortality and acts of generosity, researchers Tomasz Zaleskiewicz, Agata Gasiorowska, and Pelin Kesebir conducted a series of studies. Their results were published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

To encourage participants to think about their own impending doom, half were given a survey which asked questions about death. Questions included statements like, “I am very much afraid to die.”  The control group was given a survey about dentistry, with less-terrifying questions like “I am very much afraid of dental work.”

After completing the survey and a cooling-off period, participants in each study were asked to play a game which involved deciding whether or not to share a sum of money with a fellow student or a charitable organization. The researchers discovered that participants who had been reminded of their mortality were more generous than participants who weren’t asked to think about death.

“In a situation where anonymity was fully assured and on conceivable external pressure to behave prosocially existed, just thinking about their mortality for a brief period made participants not only more generous, but also more likely to associate generosity with increased personal satisfaction,” Zaleskiewicz, Gasiorowska, and Kesebir note.

It’s called the “Scrooge effect,” after everyone’s favorite Dickinsonian curmudgeon. “[I]n order to manage the anxiety born from the awareness of their mortality, people strive for value and meaning,” the researchers explain. “[T]he act of upholding cherished social values and the sense of meaning, value, connectedness, transcendence and security that can be derived from giving and sharing, soothe existential anxiety.”

Consider this your go-ahead to make the Grim Reaper the keynote speaker at your next charitable event.

Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

Tomasz Zaleskiewicz and Agata Gasiorowska, University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Poland
Pelin Kesebir, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Posted: June 15, 2015
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