Why Did We Invent Karma?
The fact that the concept Americans refer to as “karma” exists across so many different cultures seems both nonsensical and reasonable at the same time. On one hand, there is no evidence that karma actually exists. On the other hand, the belief that “what goes around comes around” is clearly one that leads to more cooperation, increased altruism, and a better chance a society will thrive.
Still, the fact that karma is useful at the community level doesn’t fully explain why it was created and widely accepted. It’s not a mutated gene — it was created by the human mind to serve some individual purpose. I suppose it’s possible that karma emerged from top-down proclamations by religious or community leaders, but that explanation seems insufficient to explain its popularity. Is there something else about karma that makes it appealing to individuals in specific moments of their lives?
A new study by Benjamin Converse, Jane Risen, and Travis Carter suggests that there is. In a series of experiments they found evidence to support the idea that when people face an important outcome that’s out of their control, they believe that being charitable can somehow induce a positive outcome.
We suggest that when wanting and uncertainty are high and personal control is lacking, people may be more likely to help others, as if they can encourage fate’s favor by doing good deeds proactively. Four experiments support this karmic-investment hypothesis. When people want an outcome over which they have little control, their donations of time and money increase (Experiments 1 and 2), but their participation in other rewarding activities does not (Experiment 1b). In addition, at a job fair, job seekers who feel the process is outside (vs. within) their control make more generous pledges to charities (Experiment 3). Finally, karmic investments increase optimism about a desired outcome (Experiment 4).
You don’t even have to be a stereotypical yoga-instructing, kombucha-chugging spiritual guide to feel the need to invest in karma. According to the authors, karmic beliefs likely exist on a spectrum, and people can act on them even without explicitly believing in them.
The notion of karma may reflect a truly magical belief, in which people erroneously assume that actions can influence outcomes without a causal link (Eckblad & Chapman, 1983; Zusne & Jones, 1989), or a quasi-magical belief, “in which people act as if they erroneously believe that their action influences the outcome, even though they do not really hold that belief” (Shafir & Tversky, 1992, p. 463). We suspect that helping as a karmic investment may fall on the more implicit side of this spectrum.
On a broader level, the study is another example of how powerful a lack of control can be when combined with uncertainty. Here it led to more prosocial behavior, but the desire for control and certainty can also contribute to our costly addiction to the status quo and the tendency to have irrational fears (e.g fearing terrorism more than car accidents.)
I think one challenge for the budding field of behavioral and psychological design is to find ways to channel uncontrollable uncertainty into positive outcomes rather than negative affect and random actions. For example, perhaps when the weather forecast portends a big storm a properly designed intervention can motivate people to pursue a certain kind of preventative medical care under the guise that it will give them more control over their fate.
Converse, B.A., Risen, J.L. & Carter, T.J. (2012). Investing in Karma : When Wanting Promotes Helping Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797612437248