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Why Did We Invent Karma?

2012 July 8
by Eric Horowitz

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.
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Converse, B.A., Risen, J.L. & Carter, T.J. (2012). Investing in Karma : When Wanting Promotes Helping Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797612437248

5 Responses leave one →
  1. July 8, 2012

    We invent karma because are minds are naturally programmed to rationalize and think. We follow what others believe in through observational learning and our frontal brain linked with emotions automatically think that there is a reason for why this incidence happened. Sometimes the person thinks “it could have been because I did that ‘one thing yesterday’” and people came to believe that it was karma.

  2. July 10, 2012

    In Indian context, Karma means the end sum of all your actions until you die. Then the ethical/moral leanings of those conducts(i.e. karma) determine if you will reborn as a human, an animal, an insect or any other living organism. If you attain ‘Nirvana’ through the rightmost enlightenment you are freed up from the cycle of births, deaths & rebirths and become part of the super energy pervading the entire universe.
    In contemporary context, people who don’t believe in afterlife/death-rebirth cycle but want to believe in ‘Karma’, assume its end product to be gained in this life only. As in whatever you do now will somehow determine your final fate/success. This is unlike the former believers who say you can do whatever pleases you in this life. But you shall be judged for your actions/motives when you confront god/conscience once you are dead.

  3. fuzzmello permalink
    July 10, 2012

    It would have been a much more satisfying article had the author just come out and used the ‘luck’ instead of ‘karma’, as his description of karma is so far off the mark as to be useless.

    Karma simply means action. Actions (and their inherent intentions) have consequences. Consequences can lead to unpleasant or even harmful, or pleasant and beneficial events in the future. That’s karma.

    Now, as to what the author was failing to address due to his ignorance of the term, wishing or planning for something pleasant or ‘good’ to occur in the future while performing a ‘good’ action in the present is superstition. And bad karma.

  4. Helen Tran permalink
    July 23, 2012

    Humans invented Karma because they like to find a reason for why something happened to them, rather than blaming themselves for something occurring. It is true, that there is absolutely no evidence that ‘Karma’ exists, however, it is more of a belief that people have rather than a factual thing.

  5. August 5, 2012

    It would be interesting to know if there are individual differences that moderate these effects. The authors suggested that belief in karma may represent magical thinking. Some people are more prone to magical thinking than others, so they might show stronger responses to these kinds of uncertain situations.

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