While waiting for exam results, or the outcome of a job interview, many of us might catch ourselves bargaining with the universe; in return for exam or job success we promise to become better citizens, kinder to our friends etc.

Now researchers from Chicago Booth and the University of Virginia have examined this phenomenon a little more closely. They wanted to see whether just as individuals expect others to return a favour, whether these individuals at some level also expect the universe to do the same thing. Would waiting for an outcome that was out of their control compel individuals to do good deeds, with the implicit expectation that the universe would return the favour?

Describing this phenomenon as “investing in karma” the researchers designed a series of experiments in which some participants were primed to think about the outcome of uncontrollable events, while others were told to think about their daily routines. When the participants believed that the experiment was over they were then asked if they would donate their time and work for the laboratory where the experiment took place, with the proceeds going to charity. Those individuals who had been primed to think about uncontrollable outcomes were more likely to volunteer their time.

The researchers, Jane Risen, an associate professor of behavioural science at Chicago Booth, Travis Carter, a post-doctoral research associate at Booth, and Benjamin Converse, an assistant professor of public policy and psychology at the University of Virginia believe that investing in karma might be a positive way for individuals to cope with waiting for the outcome of an uncontrollable event.

“Even if people don’t believe in karma, they may still have an intuitive sense that good things happen to good people. It that intuition moves us to donate to a good cause and makes us a little more optimistic in the meantime, that seems like a good thing,” they say.

The paper, “Investing in karma; when wanting promotes helping”, is published in the journal Psychological Science.

● The adage that urges one to sleep on a problem might make more sense than we realise. Research by Maarten Bos, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard Business School, and his colleagues has found that the unconscious mind is able to handle a larger amount of information than the conscious mind. As a result, says Mr Bos, unconscious thought can support the mental organisation that is needed for making complex decisions.

Mr Bos says that unconscious thought occurs not only when one is asleep but at other times such as driving to and from the office. One arrives safely but with little memory of what passed along the route.

“Lots of processes are automated and therefore very efficient,” he says. “Our research shows thinking and deciding can also often be left successfully to the unconscious mind.”

The Unconscious Executive can be read online at Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge.

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