The act of unselfish giving is one that can clearly benefit the people you want to help. Prosocial behavior is any form of reaching out and helping others.  Altruism involves giving up something you have and giving it to someone else.  In its most extreme and rarest form, altruism involves risking your own life to save that of another person’s.  Smaller acts of altruism are far more common and involve less of a personal sacrifice. One of the most common ways to perform an altruistic act is to donate to charity, either with your time, your money, or your material goods. Taking advantage of some new research on altruism, it turns out that you can use altruistic urges in others to benefit you.

Social psychologists are interested in altruism as the “good” in “good and evil.”  Altruism is the antidote to such antisocial acts as aggression, discrimination, and selfishness. Therefore, it may seem counterintuitive to suggest that altruism can be used to channel more money your way. It may even seem unethical to suggest manipulating people’s altruistic instincts to help feather your nest. However, researchers studying altruism are finding that they can, so to speak, prime the “altruistic pump” in others in subtle, almost subliminal, ways. You can put these subtle ways to work for you, as I'll explain shortly.

Priming is a way to influence a person’s responses in indirect ways. In a classic false memory experiment, psychologists showed that if they read a list of words from the category “sweet” (e.g. sugar, cake, candy) but don’t include the word “sweet,” people will say that sweet was on the list.  Our neural networks are organized in such a way that stimulation of one node activates other, related nodes.  The same process applies to altruistic acts. Austrian psychologist Tobias Greitemeyer (2009a) showed  that playing music whose lyrics have prosocial themes (e.g. “Help,” “We are the World,” “Heal the World”) leads people to be more ready to think about being nice to others and then actually to become more likely to engage in helping behavior.  In a second study, (Greitemeyer, 2009b), people exposed to the prosocial lyrics were more willing to donate money to a nonprofit organization. It seems, then, that we can manipulate people’s willingness to part with their money, which is a form of altruism, by the subtle signals we provide in the background.

Following up from this and other research on restaurant patrons, French researchers Céline Jacob and Nicolas Guégen (2012) decided to investigate the possibility that altruistic priming would lead restaurant patrons to be more altruistic by giving more, and larger, tips to their waitpersons. In the restaurants where the study was conducted, tips are automatically added to a patron’s bill. The question was whether, by manipulating altruistic messages, more patrons would leave an additional tip, and one of larger amount, than the standard service 12% add-on.  The study was conducted in a naturalistic setting, a local restaurant (not patronized by tourists) during the lunch hour, when customers were most likely to dine alone.  Patrons were assigned to one of three conditions: a quote containing an altruistic message, a quote containing a neutral message, and no quote at all.  The quotes were printed out by the computer, not the waitress, and showed up at the bottom of the bill. The waitresses didn’t know, prior to printing, to which condition the patron was assigned, thus eliminating the chances that they gave better service to one or another patron.

The altruistic quote (written by George Sand) was “A good turn never goes amiss,” the neutral quote was the Latin proverb “He who writes reads twice.” Other passers-by had previously rated the altruistic quote as indeed being altruistic.  Jacob and Guégen also checked, in a pilot study, to make sure that patrons receiving such tabs would actually notice the quote and, indeed, all of them did. 

As predicted, the patrons in the altruistic quote condition were significantly more likely to leave a tip; in fact, about twice as many left a tip as in either the neutral or no quote conditions. They also left tips that were from .20 to .50 euros more than did the patrons who did not get the altruistic quote on their bill.  Although it’s a small amount, clearly over the course of a day, week, or year, these amounts would add up quite substantially.

The theoretical mechanism behind the altruistic priming effect is exactly the same as we see in more cognitively-oriented experiments (such as the “sweet” memory test).  The principle of semantic activation means that if you prime one area of our mind, related mental images will start to come to our awareness. Once we have those images, we’ll be more ready to act in ways that are consistent with those images.

Priming can be put to all sorts of uses, not all of them altruistic in nature. We can be primed to discriminate against people by being exposed to subtle, but negative, cues.  Researchers have shown that we can even be primed to walk more slowly by being exposed to stereotyped words about older adults (Bargh et al., 1996).

Returning to the case of altruism, you might argue that the French study was, as I suggested earlier, unethical. It doesn’t seem right to manipulate people’s mental structures in order to get them to want to part with their hard-earned money. However, the process is no different than the manipulation advertisers use to get us to want the products they want to sell. There’s a reason that commercials lead us to associate catchy tunes to mundane products, salespeople ingratiate themselves to us so that we’ll want to reciprocate, and models smile in retail catalogs. Why not use altruistic messages to get the people we serve to hand us a heftier tip?

Many of us take advantage of the altruism manipulation without even directly intending to do so. You send holiday or birthday greetings to your bosses or teachers hoping, if only indirectly, that they think kindly of you when bonus or grading time comes around. What the French study shows is that the connection between altruism priming and tips can work almost instantaneously and without any conscious thought on the part of the donor.  It would be interesting to find out if the heavier tippers then went on, for the rest of their dining lives, to continue their generosity, but my guess is that the behavior was situation-specific.

Whether you’re trying to collect for your favorite charity, increase the size of your paycheck, or get someone to exert more effort on your behalf, by sprinkling your speech with help-oriented phrases, altruistic priming can be a useful tool. Even if you don't actually profit, the positive thoughts about helping these phrases conjure up in your own mind might just make you that much of a nicer person, and the world could certainly use more of those.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012


Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(2), 230–244.

Greitemeyer, T. (2009a). Effects of songs with prosocial lyrics on prosocial thoughts, affect, and behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(1), 186–190.

Greitemeyer, T. (2009b). Effects of songs with prosocial lyrics on prosocial behavior: Further evidence and a mediating mechanism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(11), 1500–1511.

Jacob, C., & Guéguen, N. (2012). Exposition to altruism quotes and helping behavior: A field experiment on tipping in a restaurant. Annals Of Tourism Research, 39(3), 1694-1698. doi:10.1016/j.annals.2012.02.006

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