Study: rejection leads to charitable behavior


UTSA’s marketing Ph.D. program is off to an excellent start. The very first student to graduate from the program is Jaehoon Lee; he already has his doctoral dissertation published in the “Journal of Consumer Research,” a highly regarded marketing journal published by the University of Chicago Press. Lee’s recently finished work began when he first started the marketing Ph. D. program looking at the social effects of ostracism, and his research culminated in the study of what he calls the “differential needs hypothesis.”

The differential needs hypothesis is a combination of previous studies on the effects of ostracism and social exclusion, and the results are mixed. Some experiments show that participants react to social exclusion with prosocial behavior-such as making charitable donations-while other experiments result in antisocial behavior such as aggression or conspicuous spending.

What Lee realized is that social exclusion can be either implicit (ignored) or explicit (directly rejected). Since ostracism is a bit of both, he figured this might be the cause of the contradictory results of previous studies. Lee’s research attempted to isolate the differences between implicit and explicit social exclusion. He hypothesized that these different types of exclusion would have different effects because they threaten different psychological needs. He was right.

Dr. L J Shrum, the professor of marketing at UTSA’s business school who assisted Lee with his study, also shared his thoughts on the research. “It turns out that being ignored and being rejected affect people in almost completely opposite ways. The reason is that those two types of social exclusion affect different fundamental human needs. For example, we have the need for power and control, the need to have control over our lives, and then we have self-esteem. We want others to think well of us. Being ignored affects people’s sense of power and control while rejection affects self-esteem, but not vice versa,” Shrum said.

“It turns out that when people are ignored it greatly increases their preference for conspicuous consumption because that’s a way to restore power and control, but it doesn’t affect their charitable donations. However, when they’re explicitly rejected, it increases their donation behavior because they want to reconnect with society and raise self-esteem, but it doesn’t affect their conspicuous spending.”

These are the results taken from four experiments done with a total of 266 participants. The experiments recreated conditions experienced by people when they are either ignored or rejected. The participants were then asked about their preferences for shirts with large or small logos (large representing conspicuous spending) and their willingness to donate some of the money they would earn from the experiment to a charity.

To verify the Differential-Needs Hypothesis, some groups went through an additional step, which bolstered either their self-esteem or sense of control based on which had been manipulated in the experiment. They were then asked the same preference questions. These participants showed no preference for conspicuous spending or charitable donation because the needs that had been threatened were then boosted back to normal levels, thus validating Lee’s hypothesis.

Though there might be some immediately-apparent applications of this study in a marketing context, the researchers want to find broader socially-beneficial uses for this information. “Even though it’s in a consumer journal and the experiment was done by the marketing department, we’re more interested in helping people make better decisions rather than help marketers. (The experiment) was really more about learning about the need threats rather than social exclusion. We want to make people aware of this so that when they receive a threat, they don’t then try to bolster those threatened needs in ways that are unhealthy,” said Shrum.

There is still more research that can be done on this subject. Separating the need threats in the lab is one thing, but in a social setting conditions aren’t always so black and white. The initial example of ostracism is actually the act of ignoring, but used as a form of rejection, so it is easy to see how situations can get complicated in the real world. Jae Lee, however, has made a great breakthrough in this field, and his accomplishment will serve as a source of pride for the UTSA College of Business.