Does Power Make You Less Generous?

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By Justin Brown

By nature, I’m a giver. I love giving gifts to people and usually feel very uncomfortable getting one (even if I really like the gift, I'm always worried about my visible reaction and the subsequent analysis of it).

So when I read a headline about a study suggesting a correlation between empowerment and generosity, I expected to read about how scientists just very technically proved buying a gift for someone makes a person feel great. Naturally, I was wrong.

The Northwestern University study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, actually went in a much more interesting direction: It set out to discover whether generally feeling powerful in life affected how generous a person would be when buying a gift. The experiment cast some subjects as “bosses” and others as “employees” and asked them to bid on basic items in an auction, knowing they would be gifts for someone else. The results? The empowered “bosses” spent less than the “powerless” employees (with respective averages of $7.10 and $10.81).

Then the “bosses” and “employees” were told to bid on the same items, this time believing they were buying the items for themselves. The results this time were the exact opposite: The empowered crowd was more than comfortable spending money on themselves (nearly $5 more than when they were buying gifts, at an average of $12.08) while the powerless spent 39% less on themselves than when the items were to be gifts for others ($6.49). With these findings, the study was aptly titled “Generous Paupers and Stingy Princes."

Maybe it’s good old-fashioned kindness or maybe I’m wrapped up in some deep-seeded self-esteem issues, but I find I almost always spend more on others than I do for myself. Perhaps I just need to acquire more power?

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