Hey You, Can Ya Spare Some Change? the Case of Empathy and Personal Distress As Reactions to Charitable Appeals

Mitch Griffin, Bradley University
Barry J. Babin, University of Southern Mississippi
Jill S. Attaway, Illinois State University
William R. Darden, Louisiana State University
[ to cite ]:
Mitch Griffin, Barry J. Babin, Jill S. Attaway, and William R. Darden (1993) ,"Hey You, Can Ya Spare Some Change? the Case of Empathy and Personal Distress As Reactions to Charitable Appeals", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 508-514.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 508-514


Mitch Griffin, Bradley University

Barry J. Babin, University of Southern Mississippi

Jill S. Attaway, Illinois State University

William R. Darden, Louisiana State University

One aspect of consumer behavior relevant to the nonprofit-sector is that of charitable giving. Compared to some other areas of nonprofit marketing, such as cause-related marketing (e.g., Varadarajan and Menon 1988; Ross, Patterson, and Stutts 1992), little academic research has investigated consumer responses to charitable appeals on behalf of individuals in need (c.f., Burnett and Wood 1988; Allen, Kent, and Barr 1992). On close inspection, this is somewhat surprising considering a growing interest in antecedents and consequences of consumer emotion (see Cohen and Areni 1991 and Babin, Darden, and Griffin 1992 for a review) and heightened levels of emotional involvement among consumers contemplating a decision to give or not to give to a charitable appeal (Mullen and Johnson 1990).

Recent studies have demonstrated the impact of emotion on consumer behavior in a number of different contexts. For example, emotions evoked by advertisements have been shown to affect consumer attitudes toward both the advertisement and the related brand (Burke and Edell 1989; Holbrook and Batra 1987), influence shopping behavior (Donovan and Rossiter 1982), and relate to consumer product evaluations (Westbrook and Oliver 1991). In addition, consumer emotions have been hypothesized as a major mediating variable in a comprehensive model of consumption experiences (Holbrook 1986). However, the role of consumer emotions associated with decisions to give to a charity has not been specifically addressed. The purpose of this study is to explore the effects of two specific and distinct emotions likely to be evoked by charitable appeals - true empathy (altruism) and personal distress - on the decision to give.


As revealed by a recent mega-analysis (Cialdini and Fultz 1990), a substantial number of studies appearing in the psychology literature have found a positive relationship between negative feelings and various types of helping behavior. However, the precise size and nature of this effect across different contexts remains a subject of debate (Carlson and Miller 1987). While a significant number of these studies focus on the general tone of emotional states (i.e., positive or negative) at the time one is presented with the opportunity to help, others concentrate on the specific emotions elicited by the exposure to the suffering of another person (e.g., Coke, Batson, and McDavis 1978). Two emotions, personal distress and empathy, have been shown to be common "emotional responses to seeing another person suffer" (Batson et al. 1983, p. 706). Although these emotions can both be evoked by the same situation (such as an encounter with a person in need), they have been shown to result in a unique reaction.


Empathy can be defined "as an other-oriented emotional response congruent with the perceived welfare of another person [which] can evoke motivation to help that person" (Batson et al. 1988, p. 52). Further, empathy evokes motivations to act in a manner which directly benefits the suffering person rather than toward some direct form of self-benefit. Thus, empathy is based on the premise that some motivations are truly altruistic rather than egoistic in nature. Despite an element of debate (Cialdini et al. 1987), the majority of evidence appears to support an empathy-altruism hypothesis which implies that people do not always act in an egoistic manner (see Dovidio, Allen, and Schroeder 1990 or Batson et al. 1988 for reviews).

Although few personal variables have been found to consistently relate to empathy (Batson, Bolen, Cross, and Neuringer 1986), its presence appears to consistently lead to higher levels of helping behavior. For example, subjects reporting relatively high levels of empathy, when exposed to a compatriot participating ostensively in an "experiment" in which he/she receives electric shocks for incorrect responses, are more likely to volunteer to take his/her place than are other subjects (Batson and Coke 1981; Batson et al. 1986). High levels of empathy have also been associated with an increased willingness to associate with lonely people (Fultz et al. 1986) and a greater likelihood of participating in an experiment without any additional incentive over and above helping a researcher (Dovidio et al. 1990). In a more consumer-oriented study, increased empathy has been related to consumers' verdict awards in products liability suits (Darden et al. 1991). Given these effects, it is likely that increased empathy will influence consumer responses to a charitable appeal.

Personal Distress

In contrast to empathy, personal distress is an inner-oriented emotion that creates a concern more for one's own welfare or comfort than for that of the suffering person who elicited this negative feeling state (Batson and Coke 1981). Thus, personal distress motivates one toward actions that will alleviate personal discomfort which could often take the form of escaping the victim (Batson et al. 1983). To illustrate the distinction between distress and empathy, consider the following situation. Upon encountering a blind beggar on a downtown street, you could either feel true empathy or personal distress or some level of both. If empathy is the dominant emotion, an approach response is likely to be evoked that would involve a donation. If personal distress is operant, you may consider walking on the other side of the street to minimize contact with the beggar.

Personal distress has also been found to mediate behavior between a situation and a subsequent response. For example, in the shock experiments described above, subjects experiencing personal distress are highly unlikely to agree to take any shocks for the victim so long as it is easy to simply avoid the situation (Batson et al. 1983; Fultz et al. 1990). These same experiments, however, show that when a subject is presented with a situation that is not easy to escape, personal distress can also lead to helping behavior. In this case, such actions are taken in an effort to minimize personal discomfort rather than out of a desire to help the person in need. Ease of escape is generally manipulated by either telling a subject that he/she no longer has to watch a victim should he/she decide not to help, or that he/she must continue watching regardless of his/her decision. Alternatively, empathy/distress has been influenced by altering instructions to subjects with respect to elaborating the material presented (Batson et al. 1988). Thus, only under certain conditions, such as when difficulty to escape is high, will empathy and personal distress evoke similar responses.


Empathy and personal distress appear highly relevant emotions to examine in an effort to understand consumers' decisions to make (or not to make) a charitable contribution and, if so, how much to give. We propose these two emotions are likely to mediate consumer behavior in a typical situation involving an opportunity to make a contribution. To explore this possibility, a number of hypotheses are introduced below. While the focus of the study is clearly on the effects of empathy and distress, two antecedent variables based on prior evidence are considered as well. Figure 1 helps to illustrate the relationships hypothesized in this study.

Gender Effect

While few individual difference characteristics have been found to reliably relate to situational levels of distress and empathy (Batson et al. 1986), some evidence suggests that females are likely to express higher levels of empathy and lower levels of distress than are their male counterparts (Batson and Coke 1981; Fultz et al. 1990). Therefore, men and women are expected to react differently in terms of their emotions upon encountering a charitable appeal. Thus, the following hypotheses are offered:

H1: A charitable appeal will evoke greater levels of empathy among women than among men.

H2: A charitable appeal will evoke greater levels of personal distress among men than among women.

In addition, an earlier study of donating behavior revealed a direct relationship between gender of respondents and intentions to give (Pessemier, Bemmaor, and Hanssens 1977). Pessemier et al. (1977) found that women are more likely to respond favorably to an appeal to donate body parts than are men. Thus, the following hypothesis is offered:

H3: Women will have greater intentions to give to a charitable appeal than will men.


People naturally seek to find causes for events occurring in their environment (Kelley 1967). Weiner (1985) discusses how the dimensions of causality, in turn, affect subsequent emotional responses and behavior. For example, attributions can determine whether internally or externally-oriented emotions are evoked.

In a charitable giving situation, consumers are likely to ponder the potential causes of the object of sympathy's plight. Some consumers are likely to perceive the victim to be the primary cause of his/her plight while others will view external factors as having greater causal influence. If consumers view the victim as having little (great) control of his/her plight an empathetic response is more likely (unlikely) (Weiner 1985; Hoffman 1982). The differences among consumer responses can be illustrated by considering appeals designed to help alcoholics, the homeless, or AIDs victims. Some consumers are likely to see victims of these situations as primarily responsible for their own plight, while others will perceive the victim as helpless when compared to potential causal agents such as liquor manufacturers, childhood upbringing, or society at large. We suggest that assignment of causality is likely to affect emotional responses of consumers exposed to a sympathetic appeal. Thus, the following hypothesis is offered:

H4: Causal attributions assigned to the victim (other sources) will lead to greater (lower) levels of empathy.

While the effect of attributions on personal distress are less clear, some insights can be offered. Consumers perceiving an object of sympathy to have been relatively helpless, especially if they can easily see themselves in a similar situation, are likely to express greater levels of personal distress (Darden et al. 1991). Further, since empathy and personal distress are expected to have common antecedents (Batson et al. 1983), attributions can be expected to have the same or similar effects on each. Thus, the following hypothesis is offered:

H5: Causal attributions assigned to the victim (other sources) will lead to greater (lower) levels of personal distress.

Although we have depicted empathy and personal distress as intervening between causal attributions and helping behavior, it is not likely that these emotions totally mediate the relationship. In fact, we propose that assignment of blame will directly influence behavior in sympathy evoking situations as well. From a cognitive standpoint, consumers may be less likely to see the need to make a donation if the victim has some control over his/her condition. For example, in the case of careless use of a product, consumers were found to be less willing to indicate that compensation for the injured party was due (Darden et al. 1991). Thus, the following hypothesis is offered.

H6: Causal attributions assigned to the victim will directly relate to intentions to give to a charitable appeal.

Empathy and Distress

Considering that consumers encounter the majority of charitable appeals in situations where escape is relatively easy (such as the cash register of a convenience store, a can passed in a darkened movie theater, or a television commercial), different effects due to empathy and distress can be expected. While both empathy and distress can lead to helping behavior, empathy is more likely to be operant in these situations. Thus, the following hypotheses are offered.

H7a: A positive relationship exists between empathy and intentions to give.

H7b: The relationship between empathy and intentions to give is greater than the relationship between personal distress and intentions to give.


To investigate the issues presented above, respondents were presented with a written charitable appeal imbedded within other stories in a newsletter type format. The appeal described a man who had lost his vision while using a "weed-eater" to trim grass in his yard without the aid of protective goggles. He is described as being unable to work, without insurance, and unable to pay the accumulated $250,000 in medical bills. These conditions were structured in a manner that would allow variance among respondents in assigning responsibility for the victim's condition. The appeal asks for assistance to help with medical bills and future living expenses of day-to-day life. Respondents were told they would be evaluating the content of the materials they were instructed to peruse. Following exposure to the stimulus, respondents were presented a survey instrument which included measures assessing their responses to the appeal for assistance.





To assess emotional responses to the appeal, scales developed and administered frequently to assess two pervasive emotional responses to another's suffering (empathy and personal distress) were administered (Coke et al. 1978; Batson and Coke 1981; Batson et al. 1983). Respondents were asked to record their responses to these items based on the charitable appeal on a 7-point scale ranging from "DID NOT FEEL" to "FELT VERY STRONGLY". Factor analysis of these items, the results of which are shown in Table 1, proved consistent with previous applications. Considering these results and the high coefficient a for each dimension, items for each scale were summed creating separate empathy and personal distress scales. Empathy and distress were simply measured rather than manipulated because previous studies have demonstrated similar results across both approaches (Batson et al. 1988).

Four items designed to assess causal attributions for the victim's plight were also included. Coefficient a for these items is .92 and thus they were summed to form one measure. High scores on the scale are indicative of a high amount of responsibility for the victim's own actions and low scores are indicative of causal attributions of blame to less controllable factors. Similarly, a four item scale was devised to assess intentions to give. The items express the likelihood that respondents would (would not) give as well as the amount that they would be likely to give. These items also achieved high reliability (a = .86) and were summed to form a single measure.



The data collection procedure followed the approach suggested by Abramson and Mosher (1975; Abramson, Goldberg, Abromson, and Gottesdiener 1975) and utilized by Feild (1978). Abramson and Mosher (1975) suggest using a large number of interviewers with varied demographic and personality traits in the data collection process in an effort to eliminate any interviewer bias. Following their suggested procedure, students enrolled in marketing research courses at a large midwestern university were thoroughly familiarized with the survey instrument, and received training in its administration. Each student completed interviews with four members of the urban community, excluding students and university personnel, in exchange for course credit. Telephone surveys were conducted with a subsample of the respondents to control the quality of the survey. In total, 468 research questionnaires were distributed and 384 questionnaires returned in usable form (response rate of 82.1%). The distribution of the sample closely matches that of the population across several demographic characteristics.


Three multiple regression analyses was conducted to test the hypotheses presented above. Table 2 shows the path coefficients obtained by estimating the multi-equation system. In terms of overall fit, each equation explained a significant portion of the variance in the dependent measure (p_.001) providing justification for interpretation of the path estimates (Neter, Wasserman, and Kutner 1985).

The Effect of Gender

Hypotheses one, two, and three deal with effects of gender on empathy, distress, and intentions to give respectively. Of these, only H1 receives statistical support as indicated by estimating the path between gender (coded 1 = female) and consumer empathy. Female respondents reported modestly higher levels of empathy due to the appeal for a donation compared to male respondents (¯ = .10, p_.05).

The Effect of Attributions

Hypotheses four, five, and six represented relationships between consumer causal attributions of control or responsibility for the injury. Each of these hypothesized relationships is supported as indicated by its corresponding path estimate. Consistent with H4, respondents expressing a belief that the victim was responsible for his own condition expressed lower levels of empathy than did other respondents (¯ = .32; p_.0001). Likewise, H5 is supported by a significant and negative relationship between attributions of responsibility and feelings of distress expressed by respondents (¯ = .20; p_.001). Finally, H6, represented by the path between attributions and intentions to give, is also supported (¯= .55; p_.0001). Respondents assigning high levels of responsibility for the injury to the victim expressed correspondingly lower intentions to give compared to others.

The Impact of Emotions

The last hypothesis posits two paths representing the direct impact of empathy and personal distress on intentions to give. As can be seen in Figure 2, a positive and significant relationship exists between levels of empathy expressed by respondents and intentions to give (¯ = .15; p_.01), supporting H7a. Further, support is found for H7b which suggested a stronger relationship between empathy and intentions to give (¯ = .15) than would be found between distress and intentions to give (¯ = -.02; p_.6). That is, feelings of empathy appear more instrumental in creating intentions to make a charitable donation than are feelings of personal distress.

Finally, conceptual models of the role of emotion in consumer decision processes have posited emotions as a mediating variable (e.g., Holbrook 1986). In the context of this study, the emotions of empathy and personal distress were hypothesized to mediate relationships between intentions to give and cognitive antecedents such as causal attributions. However, since personal distress was not a significant predictor of intentions it could not be a mediator variable (see Baron and Kenny 1986). To examine the possibility of empathy as a mediator, a regression was run using only gender and attributions of responsibility to directly predict intentions to give; in other words, the model was retested using only direct effects due to gender and attributions (Baron and Kenny 1986). The estimate of the relationship between attributions and intentions to give (H6) obtained testing this model (¯ = .75; p_ .0001) exceeds that obtained in a model including empathy as a mediating variable as shown above. This analysis illustrates that inclusion of empathy in the model of intentions to give to a charitable appeal attenuates the relationship between a cognitively oriented variable - attributions - and intentions to give. Thus, consistent with the role of emotions hypothesized by Holbrook (1986), evidence is presented that some degree of emotional mediation takes place when modeling consumption experiences involving charitable appeals similar to the one studied here.



The hypothesized relationships and the results of the statistical tests of these hypotheses are presented in Figure 2. The figures inside the (parentheses) are the level of significance, those without parentheses are ¯ coefficients.


This study examined the effects of select variables on intentions to give to a charitable appeal. In particular, the study shows that under conditions similar to those in which a charitable appeal is commonly encountered, feelings of empathy relate more strongly to, and lead to, greater intentions to give than do feelings of personal distress. The findings also empirically demonstrate that causal attributions have both a direct and indirect effect (through empathy) on intentions to give providing further support for a mediating role of consumer emotions in models of consumption experiences. This study also extends previous work into the effects of consumer emotions by demonstrating their relevance to understanding consumer intentions to give to a charitable appeal.

The results have significant and direct implications for charitable and non-profit organizations. To function effectively as a non-profit, organizations must receive help in the form of donor support and volunteer effort. Most of the appeals by charitable organizations stress the need for monetary contributions to cover administration costs, costs of educational and instructional materials, fund research efforts, and to provide service to the needy. As demonstrated by the results of this study, an empathy-evoking appeal will result in higher levels of charitable giving.

Charitable and non-profit organizations must also receive contributions in the form of volunteer time to accomplish their public education and fundraising goals and to provide personal service to the needy. For example, transportation to treatment centers for cancer patients and assisting AIDS victims are a common service provided by charitable organizations. While donations of time were not examined directly in this study, empathy-evoking pleas are likely to lead to higher levels of helping behavior in the form of volunteerism as well.

In both cases, however, the critical point is the distinction between appeals that evoke empathy and those giving rise to personal distress. Certainly making an emotional appeal is no secret to charitable organizations, but most of these organizations appear to take a "the more, the better" approach. Organizations must realize that appeals that are too powerful and explicit may be inducing personal distress and thus fail to motivate potential donors. For instance, the graphic depictions used by those opposing abortion could very well fail to generate financial or political support for their position. In these cases, an opportunity to gain support for the sponsor's position or elicit a donation may be lost. The measures described within this study could prove useful in pretesting appeals being contemplated by these groups.

Limitations and Future Research

Several characteristics of the study design limit interpretations of the findings and provide avenues for future research. First, the conditions in which the study was conducted created an environment where escape from the emotion-inducing stimulus was rather easy. Respondents were asked to peruse the materials but were not given specific instructions as to the degree of elaboration or an amount of time to spend processing each piece of information. While this created the advantage of allowing for naturally occurring variations in emotions among respondents (Batson et al. 1988), it does not represent other possible environment in which a charitable appeal could be presented. Thus, the results seem quite applicable to charitable appeals encountered in newsletters from local civic and religious organizations, at the counter of a convenience store, in advertisements in magazines and on late night television, all conditions where escape is easily accomplished by turning a page or "clicking" the channel. Different emotional consequences might be expected in other types of environments. Indeed the environment in which the appeal takes place might "manipulate" ease of escape and effect its emotional consequences on consumers and subsequently, their level of giving. An advertisement presented on the subway, in the workplace, at the front door, or other conditions where escape is more difficult, may lead consumers experiencing distress instead of empathy no choice but to make some contribution to relieve the negative affective state.

Further, the effects of gender may be attenuated in this study due to a potential confound. The emotion-inducing stimulus described the individual in need as a man. Thus, the degree of identification with the victim may have been higher among male respondents. This may account for a failure to replicate previous findings indicating higher intentions to give among female respondents (Pessemier et al. 1978). Left for further study is the effect of gender and degree of personal identification on emotions and giving behavior. Put more broadly, additional variables are necessary to more fully explain the dependent variables employed here.

Another interesting aspect left for future study is the effect of giving on emotions. Considering the strong motivational forces at work in creating consumers' emotional responses and behavior when encountering an appeal on behalf of one in need, an extension of this model to other consequence variables could prove enlightening. Not unlike models of satisfaction in the profit-sector literature (Westbrook and Oliver 1991), how do consumers evaluate their response to a charitable appeal? What kind of personal emotional state is created by a person experiencing altruism and giving compared to others? For example, behaviors associated with altruism may be efforts to achieve positive emotional states (e.g., caring, compassion, etc.) whereas behaviors motivated by distress might be designed to avoid negative emotional states (e.g., shame, guilt). These resulting emotional states may enable prediction of which types of consumers and conditions could lead to "loyalty" among donors.


This paper describes an initial attempt at explaining emotional reactions and intentions to give to a charitable appeal. It provides evidence that consumers will react differently based on the relative levels of empathy and distress evoked by a charitable appeal. Under conditions where an audience is not captive, appeals should be designed to evoke maximum levels of empathy and minimum levels of distress to maximize consumer intentions to give. Further, the study provides evidence that giving is increased when causal attributions of a victim's plight are placed on factors outside of his/her control. This has direct implications for the type of appeal used by nonprofit organizations soliciting appeals for victims of behavioral afflictions such as AIDS or alcoholism. In addition, the findings stimulate a host of future research topics into factors which may explain charitable giving.


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