Beliefs in Free Will and Charitable Giving

To what extent are we in control of our lives? This is a question to which people hold differing views, with some people believing to have more free will than others. This then raises the question whether ‘free will belief’ can influence helping behavior: one the one hand it might be the case that people with less belief in free will hold others less responsible for their suffering and are thus more inclined to help them. On the other hand, a reduced belief in free will might also give people an excuse to not help others, since they can tell themselves they don’t have control over being more self-centered.

To investigate this question, the Giving for Impact Foundation provided $600 to a study conducted by J. Harms, K. Liket, J. Protzko & V. Schölmerich. In this experimental study, subjects’  belief in free will was manipulated through a simple reading task, vs. a control condition without manipulation. Subsequently, subjects were given the option to donate money to a charity. The results indicate that reduced belief in free will decreased the probability of donating, but only among non-religious subjects. The findings further suggests that this might be related to the fact that religious people subscribe more strongly to a social norm of helping the poor. All in all, these findings suggest that beliefs about free will and agency may play an important role in shaping altruistic behaviors.


In this experiment $120 was donated by participants to charity (GiveDirectly)

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