According to a recent study published in Psychological Science, giving to charity might be one way that people help to feel “clean” after being inauthentic. The study investigated the effects of inauthentic behavior–behavior that does not coincide with a person’s actual feelings or personality–and how that made them feel afterward. Many people, when asked to think back on a time that they had to “perform” and weren’t allowed to be themselves, admitted to feeling unclean.
Those same people, when asked to help out with an additional 15-minute study, were more likely to do so, while people asked similar questions but given the opportunity to use hand sanitizer during the study, were less likely to do so. The results seem to show then, that people who feel that they aren’t being their true selves in their day-to-day lives are more likely to perform charitable actions.
Those charitable actions don’t need to be donations or volunteer work specifically, but helping others in some way or another is one way to feel better about ourselves. This probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to people who habitually donate to charities and understand that helping others feels good. But it might help to explain less focused or more spontaneous giving.
Donors who give regularly to established charities tend to do the most good with their money, but how many of us have paid that extra dollar at the grocery store or at a fast food restaurant to support a children’s hospital or cancer research? How many of us have given money to a homeless person or have felt the sudden urge to help out a charity we’ve just discovered? Think about how often you do these things and when. How often does helping out one homeless person make you “immune” to the needs of other homeless people, even on the same street?
None of this is to say that these actions are bad, but they might be more about helping ourselves than others.