Skip to main content

In pursuit of good karma: When charitable appeals to do right go wrong

Katina Kulow, PhD Thomas Kramer
Journal of Consumer Research. May 10, 2016

View Publication


This research examines the implications of consumers’ belief in karma—the belief that the universe bestows rewards for doing right and exacts punishments for doing wrong—in the context of prosocial behavior. Although intuitively, believing in karma should result in greater intentions to do right by supporting a charity, karmic beliefs are found to facilitate prosocial behavior only in contexts not associated with self-gains. A series of experiments shows that those with strong (vs. weak) beliefs in karma actually respond less favorably to charitable appeals that rely on common marketing tools meant to enhance consumer responses but that also cue self-gains by offering incentives or by highlighting self-benefits. However, these effects are only obtained for donations of time, which represent a means to enhance social connections, but not for donations of money. Consistent with the proposition that prosocial behaviors motivated by self-gains do not engender karmic rewards, lower intentions to do right among those with strong karmic beliefs are driven by a shift from other-focused to self-focused attention following appeals that cue self-gains, as compared to appeals that do not. Results imply that marketers need to take into account consumers’ karmic beliefs when seeking to incentivize prosocial behavior.