ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2021, Vol. 29 ›› Issue (7): 1279-1290.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2021.01279

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The effects of prosocial spending on subjective well-being and its mechanism

CUI Xinyue1, LI Bin1,2(), HE Ruwan1, ZHANG Shuying1, LEI Li1   

  1. 1 Management School, Jinan University, Guangzhou 510632, China
    2 The Institute of Enterprise Development, Jinan University; Guangzhou 510632, China
  • Received:2020-08-11 Online:2021-07-15 Published:2021-05-24
  • Contact: LI Bin


While prosocial behavior has long been concerned by researchers, many recent studies have focused on prosocial spending. Prosocial spending refers to spending money on others in the form of gifts or charitable donations. Compared with other prosocial behaviors, spending money on others is less time needed and more popular in the online environment. Prosocial spending not only benefits the recipient but also exerts a positive effect on the giver’s subjective well-being. We would discuss some important aspects which have been explored in the relationship between prosocial spending and subjective well-being. First of all, the effect of prosocial spending on subjective well-being depends on the type of recipient (individual vs. organization or society at large). Secondly, this effect has been proved to cultural universality and cultural persistence. Prosocial spending is relatively immune to the effects of hedonic adaptation, because people’s daily life affords numerous opportunities for they to spend money on others, which potentially providing frequent small doses of joy.

Moreover, the mechanism underlying this effect could be explained by several theories, which include self-determination theory, social norm theory, evolution theory and social exchange theory. According to self-determination theory, prosocial spending promotes people’s subjective well-being through satisfied with the fundamental human needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy. Specifically, prosocial spending provides an opportunity for people to make a meaningful impact, which is potentially satisfying the human need for competence. It can also enhance people’s feelings of social connection, therefore satisfying the human need for relatedness. And people would derive more happiness from prosocial spending when they have an autonomous motivation for helping. According to social norm theory, most others would approve of a person's conduct when people compliance with social norms. Because prosocial spending is driven by a desire to adhere to social norms, then individuals can maintain a positive self-concept and improve their own happiness levels by this way. According to evolutionary theory, people tend to be happier when their prosocial spending on relatives rather than unrelated individuals. At the same time, prosocial spending can also be explained by the model of reciprocal altruism. Spending money to benefit others can leave a good impression, such that people may improve their social status and reputation, and thereby enhance individual subjective well-being. According to the social exchange theory, when individuals spending money on others, they make a cost-benefit analysis based on their own values. And the giver can get happiness as emotional rewards after the prosocial spending even they don’t get a material benefit from the recipient.

Additionally, both internal and external factors influence the relationship between prosocial spending and subjective well-being. External factors such as culture would make an impact on them, because define of subjective well-being and prosocial behavior is different between differetial cultures. And the goals of prosocial spending would also influence this effect. People would benefit more postive affect from specifical goal other than fuzzy goal in their prosocial spending. Internal factors include individual motivations and their understanding of happiness. When people doing the prosocial spending is driven by their own internal motivation (vs. Internal motivation), it is more likely to promote the subjective well-being.

In general, this research underscores the value of prosocial spending is not only helping others, but also is improving their own subjective well-being. This finding can change the individual's stereotypes of spending that is loss, and it can even motivate people to actively participate in more prosocial activities, thus to make great contributions to people’s happy life and the construction of a harmonious society. Future studies should focus on examining the boundary conditions of the effect, exploring the long-term positive effects of prosocial spending, and improving the ecological validity of research on prosocial spending.

Key words: prosocial spending, subjective well-being, self-determination theory, social norm theory, evolutionary theory

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