Are you the sort of person who donates a lot of money to charity—or do you keep your hard-earned cash to yourself? Have you ever wondered why you make that choice? A recent paper by Stephanie Richman at Westminster College and her colleagues at University of Kentucky suggest that the answer may lie with the way you were raised.
“Attachment theory” seeks to explain how individuals respond when they feel hurt by a loved one, or separated from them. The theory predicted—and a great deal of research has subsequently verified—that a child who felt like they could turn to a caregiver for help or warmth will grow up to find adult intimacy easier to establish. Psychologists labeled this a “secure” attachment style. But someone raised by a cold or unhelpful figure will later struggle with emotional connection, goes the theory. Some people will actually shun intimacy—making their attachment style “avoidant.”
Richman and her colleagues investigated whether attachment style spills over into other domains of adult life—specifically, charitable giving. Many fundraising appeals depend heavily on empathy to provoke giving, trying to create a sense of connection between the prospective donor and a person who needs help. Can that appeal backfire with someone who avoids intimate connections?
To find out, the researchers tested online participants to determine their attachment style—and then offered them a choice: to donate to charities related to animals, people, or the environment.
As expected, people who are prone to suppress emotion and avoid intimacy donated much less to people- or animal-related charities than those who are securely attached. But the two groups donated to environmental charities at similar levels. This, say the researchers, is because avoidant people have a difficult time becoming involved in situations that require emotional investment or empathetic concern for other living things, simply because it consumes so much of their inner resources. It’s difficult to feel “empathy” with the environment, and so donating to save it may trigger less anxiety in people who avoid intimacy.
After documenting the key role that empathy played in decisions of avoidant participants, the researchers conducted a second study to see if they could remove the experience of emotional investment—and thus create a situation where avoidantly attached people responded the same as other participants in a situation that might involve empathy.
But how? Richman and colleagues decided to manipulate participants into believing that their emotions were unchangeable. This, they reasoned, would minimize the fear that entering an emotional situation might cause their inner state to shift in a stressful direction.
They told two groups of avoidant people that they would be performing a memory task. Both were given a pill that would enhance memory, or so they were told. It was actually just vitamin C. The first group believed the pill was only a memory enhancer, but the second group was told that the pill had a side effect that would freeze them in their then-current emotional state.
The duty of the participants was to remember as many details as possible of a person on a television screen—supposedly another participant in real time, but actually a confederate in a pre-recorded video. The confederate held her hand in a bucket of ice-water while looking at gory pictures. Researchers stopped the video after this task and purportedly before the next, when the confederate would have to touch a tarantula, claiming she needed a break. They told the participant that she might not be able to continue in the experiment. They asked the participant: Would you be willing to take her place?
As the researchers predicted, avoidant people who thought their emotions were frozen were just as likely to take her place as more securely attached individuals. Those with an avoidant attachment style who believed that they had only taken a pill to enhance their memory were much less willing to take the place of the other participant.
“Reducing the potential emotional cost of helping increases helping amongst people who are avoidantly attached,” conclude the researchers. They also note that the research has implications for nonprofit fundraising. While securely attached people may respond to cute children or animals, they write, “people high in avoidant attachment may respond better to donation requests that are less targeted to their emotions.”