SEATTLE — Psychological research often involves studying the specific cognitive traits of people with certain behaviors. Philanthropists, for example, give what they have to help others less fortunate. Some examples of philanthropists in the media are Bill and Melinda Gates, Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela and Oprah Winfrey. The question is why do these people feel the need to help others? What is behind the psychology of a philanthropist based on scientific research?
Philanthropy is the desire to promote the welfare of others by addressing social issues. Individuals can express their philanthropy with generous donations of money to fund causes. Philanthropy not only includes donations but also volunteer services and other acts of kindness. Learning To Give, an organization aiming to teach youth about philanthropy describes it as “a critical part of a democratic society.” The organization itself supports potentially beneficial projects and endeavors that work to improve education around the world.
Before psychology can play into philanthropy, certain basic needs must be addressed. Jen Shang, a philanthropic psychologist, says donors need to have the means to give, a draw towards giving and interest in a cause. People are most likely to donate funds or time if they have money, drive and passion for it.
Motives for Volunteers
Psychology comes into play when a person with the means decides whether to contribute their time or not. Volunteers seem to be motivated to volunteer for themselves as much as others. Possible motivations are networking reasons, relevant career experience and the ability to gain an understanding or knowledge on a problem, cause or group of people.
Furthermore, giving to others can provide personal developments and achievements such as improving skills, testing abilities, enhancing esteem and gaining knowledge about social concerns. Beyond self-interest and humanitarian concerns, religious and spiritual beliefs can also drive people to act. It is, therefore, important to note that volunteers work to benefit themselves as well as others.
Psychology of a Philanthropist
Beyond practical motivations for individuals to donate or volunteer, there are some interesting scientific findings regarding the psychology of a philanthropist. The “Big Five” personality traits are a common measurement tool used in psychological research; they are neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness. By using these traits, scientists may begin to understand the psychological motivations behind volunteers’ and philanthropists’ actions.
A 2010 study investigated volunteers at a palliative care hospice through the analysis of the five main personality traits, taking into account “four separate aspects of empathy.” The volunteers participating in the study worked in hospice homes to improve the life of their residents. The study compared the traits of the female hospice volunteers with females from the general population.
The study found that these volunteers differed from the general population in four out of five traits. Specifically, the hospice workers were lower on neuroticism and significantly higher on extroversion, openness and agreeableness. This means these volunteers are very focused on and willing to engage with others, open to new experiences and more likely to work towards positive relationships with those around them.
This study suggests philanthropists are outgoing, open and selfless people. There is, however, a concern with studying only the women to determine the findings. Although philanthropy may involve a willingness to hear the plight of others, work to understand how to solve an issue and care enough to act, as supported by the findings in the study, more studies with varying test subjects would highlight a philanthropist’s psychology further.
Studies like the one mentioned above might be useful for organizations searching for volunteers. A better understanding of the psychology of a philanthropist could lead to better marketing strategies and a better understanding of the types of people more likely to get involved, which could lead to the improvement of living conditions around the world through increased philanthropy.
– Zachary Sparks