Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 28, 2021

Joy linked to reduced responsibility

By Alice Hung | October 11, 2012

Would you rather have a choice, or do you want to be told what to do? Chances are, you’re smirking at the question thinking, of course I want to have choices! Research shows, however, that in some situations, people are happier when they are told what to do.

Jonathan Berman and Deborah Small from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania conducted a series of psychology experiments on 216 undergraduates. Results suggest that participants who were forced to enjoy themselves reported feeling happier than those who were given a choice.

Living in a society where interpersonal relationships are part of our day-to-day life, we’ve been raised to make decisions that benefit others, even when it’s at the expense of our self-interests. When we make that occasional decision to buy a chocolate bar instead of donating the dollar to charity, we’re often left with the feeling of guilt.

Is it possible to fully enjoy self-indulgence? According to Berman, it is! By “forcing” individuals to enjoy their self-interest by removing the element of choice, we can simultaneously suppress the individual’s sense of responsibility over his or her actions. Naturally, this eliminates the guilty feeling for choosing to eat a chocolate bar instead of helping the starving children in Africa.

In the first study, Berman gave each participant $3 upon arrival. The subjects were then randomly assigned to three groups: imposed charity condition, imposed self-interest condition, and choice condition.

In the imposed charity condition, participants were told to donate the money to UNICEF. In the imposed self-interest condition, participants were told to use the money on themselves. Lastly, in the choice condition, participants were allowed to choose between donating the money and keeping it. As hypothesized, subjects told to keep the money reported being the happiest.

To determine whether it’s the lack of choices that made participants happier, or if it’s the removal of responsibility, Berman did a second study that eliminates the choice variable. Again, participants were divided into three groups.

In one group, participants chose between donating the money to UNICEF and Red Cross. In the second group, participants had to choose between keeping a Starbucks gift card or an Au Bon Pain gift card for themselves. Lastly, participants from the third group chose between keeping a gift card for themselves verses donating it to charity.

Results show that participants who had to choose between two options that benefit themselves reported being the happiest. With the element of choice out of the way, this suggests that it is the removal of responsibility over decisions (whether for altruism or for self-interest) that resulted in the increase in happiness.

However, skeptics might ask, how do you control for personal preference?

To address this variable, Berman conducted a third study where participants were asked whether they prefer to keep the money or donate it. Next, they were randomly divided into two groups.

In the first group, the subjects were told that they would get what they chose. In the second group, they were told that the computer would choose for them. In reality though, the computer was programmed to choose the option that the subjects preferred.

Effectively, the only difference is whether the subject believed that he or she decided the outcome. Results show that of the ones who preferred to keep the money, those who thought that the computer made the decision were happier than those who believed they were responsible for their own decision.

These studies show that people are happier when they are “forced” to choose the option that serves their personal interest. The lack of choice removes their sense of responsibility and the subsequent guilt for deciding to serve their own interests instead of helping others.

Interestingly, when asked straight out whether they would prefer imposed self-interest, imposed charity, or choice, 63.6% of students still preferred the choice option.

Evidently the notion of free will is still important. However, that doesn’t mean having a choice will necessarily make us happier. Sometimes, someone just has to tell us to enjoy ourselves!

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