Forthcoming in Economics Letters

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Exploring the Origins of Charitable Acts: Evidence from an Artefactual Field Experiment with Young Children

John A. List, Anya Savikhin Samek

Economics Letters (Forthcoming)

As a whole, studies suggest that the propensity to give is an evolutionary trait, with even young children displaying other-regarding behavior. Two factors – warm glow and altruism – have been found to be determinants of giving. Warm glow is an increase in wellbeing or satisfaction from the ‘act of giving itself,’ while pure altruism is the increase in wellbeing or satisfaction from the increase in wellbeing of the recipient.

We take the literature in a new direction by disentangling the foundation of pure altruism and warm glow motivators for giving among children ages 3-5. We find evidence in favor of pure altruism but not warm glow, among our young subjects. These data open up the possibility that there is a fundamental nature of pure altruism, and that the warm glow preference observed in adults might develop over time, and is learned via socialization.

Future work should build on these results by uncovering the path to which warm glow emerges in humans and the underlying reason why such preferences emerge. In particular, if children ‘learned’ altruism or warm glow through socialization, we may expect choices to be correlated with SES. One speculation is that development of ‘warm glow’ could be driven by the desire to signal to other that we are pro-social, and this signaling desire may develop over time. By conducting such studies, we can better model why people give, deepen our understanding of the sources of giving, and design mechanisms to promote the efficient level of public good

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