RGK Faculty Fellow: Marlone Henderson

What circumstances influence an individual’s motivation to donate either time or money to a charitable cause? In his research on prosocial behavior, RGK Center Faculty Fellow and Assistant Professor of Psychology Marlone Henderson has been engaged in a series of studies looking at factors that impact psychological barriers to charitable giving and volunteering. Prosocial behavior―when an individual takes action to help others―is “a huge area in social psychology,” Henderson says, and philanthropy is a prime example of a prosocial or “helping” behavior.

Henderson’s research pursuits in philanthropy began almost as an accident at the University of Chicago (where he taught from 2006 to 2008) through his involvement in a study looking at how other people affect an individual’s motivations. A relative of one of the members of the research team was in a senior position at an international NGO that seeks sponsors for children in war-torn or impoverished regions of the world. This connection provided an opportunity to test some ideas on group activities and donation goals. Using previous donors as subjects, the team wrote letters using a variety of appeals to raise money for an emergency relief fund to see which approach resulted in the most money raised. “It was a win-win,” said Henderson. “We tested our ideas, and we raised money to support kids.”

Ever since, this opportunity to conduct research while having practical real-world impacts has been a key feature in Henderson’s continuing study of what helps people transcend psychological barriers to giving or volunteering.

Last year, Henderson and colleagues published “When others cross psychological distance to help: Highlighting prosocial actions toward outgroups encourages philanthropy” in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. This study looked at how others’ actions can influence an individual’s decision to help a socially distant (vs. close) beneficiary. [Read more here]. Other work has tested some accepted persuasion techniques from social psychology that have since been found to be less effective than just asking outright for donations of time or money. These results were recently published in Social Psychological & Personality Science. [Read more