Regulatory focus and generosity

James Cornwell, Tory Higgins, David Krantz

The purpose of this research is to better understand the connection between circumstance, motivation, and sacrificial giving. Pro-social entities often thrive on the free giving of others; our research is geared toward discovering the relationships between motivation and environment, which result in the most generous giving. Previous research has shown that individuals with a promotion regulatory focus and individuals with a prevention regulatory focus respond differently to different motivational primes. The study manipulates the form of motivation given to participants along with their motivational states to see if there is an interaction effect. We replicated this study under conditions of anonymous giving, thus increasing our understanding of the role of different motivational orientations and primes on the amount individuals are willing to give to charity. The project will also relate these motivations to emotional experiences suggested by the moral philosophy and moral psychology literature.


Main Findings

  • Our studies have so far shown a link between moral duty (“responsibility to the less fortunate”) and the prevention focus on the one hand, and moral virtue (“the sort of person you aspire to be”) and the promotion focus on the other, in terms of how much an individual is willing to donate.
  • It appears those with a stronger promotion focus give when primed to interpret giving as an opportunity to achieve gain, and those with a stronger prevention focus give when primed to interpret giving as an opportunity to avoid loss.
  • Direct manipulations of the appeal wording and follow-up questions have helped to link giving in the promotion focus with an ethics of virtue and giving in the prevention focus with an ethics of duty.


Broader Impacts

  • Many organizations and institutions that do good work are dependent on the generosity of their donors for survival.  Our research is an investigation into how to make appeals for donations more effective, and donors more likely to happily give of their earned income. This could impact the way that organizations structure their appeals for donations for sustaining their projects.
  • If people are more aware of the differences in moral motivational orientations, it could lead to a more pluralistic view of morality and attenuate some of the social friction that currently exists over society’s moral disagreements.


CRED2 Award (2010-2015): Funding was provided under the cooperative agreement NSF SES-0951516 awarded to the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions.