Special Session Summary Understanding Altruism: Stories, Experiments, and Cross-Cultural Comparisons

Michal Strahilevitz, University of Miami
[ to cite ]:
Michal Strahilevitz (1997) ,"Special Session Summary Understanding Altruism: Stories, Experiments, and Cross-Cultural Comparisons", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 101-102.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 101-102



Michal Strahilevitz, University of Miami

"How selfish soer man be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it."- Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1869), p.47

"Feel good about yourself. Give blood!"- Advertisement, The American Red Cross

"It’s a wonderful feeling to know that today many people are alive and some of them married and have their children, and that their children will have children because I did have the courage and the strength."- Irene- A German gentile woman who was honored by Yad Va Shem for rescuing Jews in Nazi Europe. (Monroe, Barton, and Klingmann 1990).


As the above quotes suggest, altruistic acts make those who perform them feel good. Indeed, altruism has been described as the consumption of "warm glow" (Andreoni 1989, 1990), the purchase of moral satisfaction (Kahneman and Knetsch 1992), and an act motivated by the desire for praise, appreciation and improved self esteem (Becker 1974). One way of thinking of altruism in the context of consumer behavior is to view those engaged in altruistic behavior as consumers of the various psychological benefits derived from "doing the right thing." Clearly, there is some sort of utility associated with acts of altruism. Otherwise, people would not behave altruistically. Regardless of whether altruists pay for this utility by donating cash, contributing their time, or risking their own welfare, something must be motivating them to perform their good deeds.

The papers presented in this special sesson offered a wide-range of approaches to studying altruism. Indeed, the methods used included cross-cultural comparisons, lab experiments, and qualitative analysis of children’s stories. The three papers presented also investigated a diverse range of forms of altruism. The first paper investigated the time consuming, painful, and potentially dangerous act of donating bone marrow. Meanwhile, the second looked at financial contributions to a variety of charitable organizations. Finally, the third paper examined the personal sacrifices involved in the giving of birthday gifts. Surprisingly, many common threads were observed between the three papersC most notably that seemingly "altruistic" behavior appears to be motivated by a combination of both "egoistic" and truly "altruistic" motives.


The first paper was "Cultural Factors in the Decision to Donate Bone Marrow" by Richard P. Bagozzi, Kam-Hon Lee, and M. Frances Van Loo. This research examines why some people donate bone marrow while others do not. The explanatory framework is based on a theory of ethnicity which attempts to account for decisions as functions of differences in moral, ethical, normative, cognitive, and emotional responses. Data were collected from four cultural groups (Hong Kong Chinese, Chinese Americans, black Americans, and white Americans). All respondents were asked to express their psychological reactions to donating bone marrow for each of four targets: immediate family members, close relatives, ethnic strangers, and total strangers.

Main effects for culture were found such that the strongest psychological reactions in favor of donorship occurred for Hong Kong Chinese and Chinese Americans and the weakest in favor of donorship occurred for black and white Americans. However, as the authors pointed out, these findings must be interpreted in light of the significant interactions, where the largest impact for some reactions (e.g., desires, affective responses) occurred for immediate family members and close relatives while other reactions (e.g., evaluations, normative responses) occurred for strangers. Decisions were found to be functions of unique hedonic and utilitarian components of attitude, as well as emotional implications of normative pressures. Differences in family orientations accounted for the interactions noted above. Rather than being limited to nominal categories based on race, ethnicity was found to be characterized by a pattern of psychological, social, and behavioral responses.

The second paper was "Cause-Based versus Charity-Specific Satiation in Charitable Giving" by Michal Strahilevitz. This work examined the phenomenon of variety seeking both between specific charities (e.g., World Wild Life Fund, Green Peace, American Cancer Society) and between general cause categories (e.g., saving endangered animals, sponsoring needy children, funding medical research). The results suggest that allocation among multiple charities from multiple cause-categories can be affected by budget constraints, time elapsed between solicitations, presentation format, and whether or not subjects are asked to indicate a favorite cause-category before making their allocations decisions.

Specifically, it was demonstrated that both larger budgets and shorter time lapses between contributions increased variety seeking between charities, but only the latter had an effect on variety seeking between causes. As hypothesized, when individual charities were listed in a random order, variety seeking between cause-categories was significantly lower among subjects who had been asked to state their favorite cause. However, in the absence of asking subjects to state a favorite cause, variety seeking between causes was significantly greater when the charities were presented by cause-category rather than in a random order with no indication of cause category. The interaction between whethe subjects were prompted to indicate a favorite cause-category and whether they were presented with the list of charities by cause category was significant. The results suggest that both variety seeking and loyalty can be influenced both at a general cause level and at a specific charity level. However, cause-based satiation and charity-specific satiation can respond very differently to the same combinations of external stimuli.

The third paper by Russell Belk and Kimberly Dodson was entitled "Lessons of Altruism and Egoism in Children’s Stories." This paper was based on a qualitative analysis of 100+ contemporary children’s’ stories which involved birthday celebrations. The authors discussed how birthdays have become democratized celebrations of self among literate, urban, calendar-keeping societies. As is typical of this genre, the stories examined by the authors involved not only singular attention to the birthday person, but also occasions of both communal and familial support and the giving and receiving of gifts. It was noted that, for young children especially, birthdays are a time of avid material desire and anticipation. In both giving and receiving birthday gifts, children have a critical opportunity to learn about giving and getting. Like older fairy tales, these stories convey morals and often focus on selfishness and greed versus altruism and generosity. Thus children’s birthday stories and the morals contained in them can be viewed as socialization vehicles.

One especially interesting observation in this research was that "bad" egoistic and materialistic behavior are seldom punished in the stories. Instead, happy endings are either created by a transformation of egoism into altruism or by allowing material rewards and self-indulgence to result from ostensibly altruistic acts. In other words, the honest, caring and generous character succeeds and thrives, while the unscrupulous, selfish, greedy character suffers and fails. This "you can have it all" message makes altruism an instrumental act, not its own reward.

In pursuing a deeper understanding of the moral messages in these birthday stories, the authors examined the roles of gender, age, time period (by decade), and the symbolic roles of sacrifice, obedience, greed, sharing, caring, individualism, wealth, surprise, magic, ritual, transformation, and growth. While there were nuances and subthemes detected in this finer analysis, the overall message of these children’s books was found to be a conservative oneC that altruistic acts are a means to self-gratification via a deus ex machina rewarding individualistic deservingness. The subtheme of altruism as its own reward was feminized by its depiction almost exclusively among females and older persons. The very young, very old, and impoverished are most commonly the recipients of such "true altruism." A second subtheme was that of communalism which involves a support system of family, friends, and community. But their largesse is also largely directed to those who are morally deserving. The authors concluded with an assessment of the implications of such lessons for altruism, egoism, and personal, political, and community relations.


This session concluded with a great deal of graciousness on the part of our discussant, William Wells. Alas, due to there being so much interesting material to present in the three papers, we ran out of time. Wells had suggested right at the start of the session that it would be interesting to attempt to apply some of the lessons learned from the research to the task of raising funds for universities. In addressing this idea, several possibilities come to mind. The work by Bagozzi , Lee and Van Loo suggests that propensity to donate may be influenced by cultural background. Their findings also suggest that the more individuals feel like the university is part of their "family," the more likely they will be to contribute. Their results also indcate that the degree to which a sense of "university=family" influences donation behavior may be influenced by both the psychological make-up and the cultural background of the potential donors. The results of the Strahilevitz paper suggest that universities may be able to increase total donations by offering a variety of sub-causes that donated funds can be ear-marked for (e.g., a new gym, student scholarships, medical research, a new building for the business school, etc.). Strahilevitz’s research also suggests that the more money a potential donor has budgeted to charitable giving, the greater will be their need for variety. Furthermore, her results suggest that frequent requests for donations may in some cases result in lower total donations than more greatly spaced apart requests. Indeed, as Linville and Fischer’s renewable resource theory (1991) suggests, longer time lapses between requests may give donors a chance to renew their ability to derive pleasure from the act of contributing to a specific cause. Finally, the work by Belk and Dodson suggests that many individuals, especially males, may have been socialized from a very early age to believe that giving more eventually leads to receiving more. Therefore, rather than just focusing on the idea of giving for the sake of giving, universities may want to offer potential donors some sort of extrinsic rewards or "gifts" in exchange for their generous behavior. Indeed, the norm of reciprocity (Walster, Berscheid, and Walster 1973) suggests that those donors who receive a reward will be more likely to give again at a later date. Be it putting the donors’ names on a new building, offering free tickets to both cultural and sporting events, or sending out ceramic mugs with the university’s logoC it is likely that the money universities put into "reciprocating" may be a wise investment in future fund-raising potential.


Andreoni, James (1989), "Giving with Impure Altruism-Applications to Charity and Ricardian Equivalence," Journal of Political Economy, 97 (December), 1447-1458.

Andreoni, James (1990), "Impure Altruism and Donations to Public Goods-A Theory of Warm-Glow Giving," Economic Journal, 100 (June), 464-477.

Kahneman, Daniel and Jack L. Knetsch (1992), "Valuing Public Goods: The Purchase of Moral Satisfaction," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 22, 57-70.

Linville, Patricia and Gregory Fischer (1991), "Preferences for Separating or Combining Events," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60 (1), 5-23.

Walster, Elaine, Ellen Berscheid, and William G. Walster (1973), "New Directions in Equity Research," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 25, 2 (February), 151-76.