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Date: Mar 23, 2020

Prosocial spending has delayed negative effects on happiness

New paper by Armin Falk and Thomas Graeber published in PNAS

Governments around the world increasingly acknowledge the role of happiness as a societal objective and implement policies that target national well-being levels. Knowledge about the determinants of happiness, however, is still limited. A longstanding candidate is prosocial behavior.

A new study by Armin Falk and Thomas Graeber, now published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, empirically investigates the effect of prosocial behavior on happiness in a high-stakes decision experiment. The findings reveal a more nuanced causal relationship than previously suggested.

Getting money vs. saving a human life

In the experiment, every participant either saved one human life in expectation by triggering a targeted donation of 350 euros, or received an amount of 100 euros. Using a choice paradigm between two binary lotteries with different chances of saving a life, the researchers observed subjects’ intentions at the same time as creating random variation in prosocial outcomes.

The data obtained by measuring happiness repeatedly at various delays weakly replicate the positive effect identified in previous research, but only for the very short run. One month later, the sign of the effect reversed, and prosocial behavior led to significantly lower happiness than obtaining the money. Notably, even those subjects who chose prosocially were ultimately happier if they ended up getting the money for themselves. 

The new study thus documents that prosocial behavior does not unequivocally increase happiness, because prosocial spending naturally requires giving up something else, which may decrease happiness in its own right. This may provide an explanation for the apparent absence of universal prosocial behavior.


Armin Falk, Thomas Graeber: Delayed Negative Effects of Prosocial Spending on Happiness.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (forthcoming, March 2020). (Link)

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