Penny for your magical thoughts

We can't resist investing in karma and bargaining with fate, say researchers. Matthew Reisz reports

Anyone awaiting the results of a job application, a court case, a medical test - or even a submission to the research excellence framework - knows what it's like for important decisions to be completely beyond their control.

But to cope with this uncertainty, we tend to "invest in karma" by, for example, dropping a few coins in a collection box as if we believed that "the universe punishes sin and rewards virtue".

That is the claim of a paper published in the latest issue of Psychological Science and written by Benjamin Converse, assistant professor of public policy and psychology at the University of Virginia, Jane Risen, associate professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, and her postdoctoral research associate Travis Carter.

"After all the resume tweaking and handshaking," they write, "the job seeker can only wait for the phone to ring. After all the test preparation and statement crafting, the high-school senior can only scan the mail for the dreaded thin envelope or the prized thick one. After controlling whatever can be controlled, people must eventually turn many outcomes over to 'the universe'.

"We suggest that in these moments...[they] may act as if they can gain fate's favor by doing good deeds proactively."

Professor Converse has carried out research on social exchange and reciprocity. Professor Risen has written a dissertation on the "magical thinking" involved in the notion of "tempting fate", as when people believe rain is more likely if they leave home without an umbrella.

They therefore decided to bring together these complementary interests and explore "how we bargain with the universe in the same way as we bargain with each other, expecting it to return our favours", said Professor Risen.

"A common example is when someone is in a difficult situation and promises to be a better person if only they are allowed to get out of it," she said.

Asked for an example from her own life, Professor Risen said she remembered a time when she was nervous about a major academic presentation and went to buy a bottle of water from a vending machine.

"Someone had left a dollar in it, so I could have got the water for free. But I felt a compulsion to put in a dollar, so the next person could get the free bottle. It wasn't a moment to be taking advantage of a lucky chance."

The joint paper, titled "Investing in karma: when wanting promotes helping", presents a series of experiments to show just how common this form of thinking is, with "repeated evidence of people doing real, consequential, costly good deeds when they wanted something beyond their control".

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