BEHAVIOR
July 25, 2012

Courting Karma

When faced with uncertainty, we are more likely to believe in the power of good deeds. Take that job hunt for example.

Karma, the idea that a person's actions and conduct will determine their destiny, isn't thought of as a particularly American concept. In India, where cows roam the streets and many people still believe in reincarnation, it fits right in. But what about in the land of Harvard Business School and mortgage bankers?

Researchers from the Universities of Virginia and Chicago recently published a study that suggests that people in the U.S. do believe in karma or something very much like it. It just takes some uncertainty in their life to make them remember that they do.

Karma is basically an understanding that what comes around goes around and you should live your life accordingly. Good deeds will be rewarded, bad deeds punished. Harvard Business School might call it The Cosmic Balance Sheet.

People filling out surveys about uncontrollable aspects of the job hunt (such as whether new jobs will open up soon) pledged to donate more of their potential prize money from a lottery to charity than those filling out surveys about more controllable aspects of the job hunt (such as learning about the industry).

In four separate experiments, the researchers found that when faced with uncertain outcomes which they had no control over, people were inclined to act more charitably than usual. And they also felt that doing so boosted their chance of ending up with a favorable outcome.

This may not quite be belief in karma. The idea that karma only operates when you need help is more along the lines of instant karma. But the study results do suggest that deep down, everyone knows that sooner or later, good things happen to good people.

In the first experiment, some of the subjects were asked to write about important, uncontrollable outcomes that they were facing. These included pregnancy tests, college applications and court proceedings.

Afterwards, the subjects were told that the study was over and were then asked to volunteer additional time for work that would provide food for the hungry or wishes for terminally ill children. Those who had written about the uncertainty they were facing in their life (and presumably were thinking about it) were more likely to volunteer their time than the other study members.

In a second experiment, the subjects were split into three groups. One group reflected on an uncontrollable outcome that they were facing, a second reflected on a pending outcome that they did have some control over and a third thought about their preferences in making common everyday choices. Once again, it was members of the group reflecting on an uncontrollable outcome who were most likely to make a monetary donation to charity.

Two other experiments were performed outside the laboratory at a job fair. People filling out surveys about uncontrollable aspects of the job hunt (such as whether new jobs will open up soon) pledged to donate more of their potential prize money from a lottery to charity than those filling out surveys about more controllable aspects of the job hunt (such as learning about the industry). And donating to charity increased people's optimism about their job prospects.

To the researchers, this all adds up to the idea that people who feel their fate lies in invisible hands believe that they'll come out better if they act charitably. Is this belief in karma? Well, you'd have to ask the karmic experts. It certainly suggests that people do believe in the power of good deeds.

An article on the study was published online by Psychological Science and will also appear in a future print issue of the journal.

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