The incredible symbolic power of emptying your pockets
Even symbolic reminders of emptiness can spur us to be stingy
Consider, for a moment, the word "empty." It doesn't convey anything positive, does it? Empty wallet. An empty suit. Empty promises.
The very concept is enough to put one in a churlish, self-centered mood. And according to newly published research from Israel, that's exactly what it does.
In a series of experiments, people who emptied a receptacle — anything from a jar to a coat pocket — were subsequently more likely to eat snack foods, and less likely to provide help to others.
According to a research team led by Liat Levontin of the Israel Institute of Technology, the results provide evidence of our largely unconscious but "deep concern for not having sufficient resources." It seems this form of anxiety is strong enough to directly influence our behavior, even when triggered indirectly.
In the Journal of Consumer Psychology, Levontin and her colleagues describe six studies in which participants either engaged in, or observed, an act of emptying. One particularly intriguing experiment featured 53 university students who were asked to try on a coat.
One group of students "were asked to fill the coat pockets with as many items at they could from an assortment of items placed on a table, such as a mobile phone, pens, pencils, keys, gloves, etc.," the researchers write. Another group "were asked to completely empty the coat pockets and put all the items on the table." After they finished either filling or emptying its pockets, each participant wore the coat for a few minutes, purportedly so they could evaluate it.
Afterwards, all were told donations were being collected for the Cancer Society, and they were free to give money to the charity if they wished. They were also told they could help themselves to some candy "as a token of appreciation for their participation."
The results: Those who emptied the coat pockets gave less money to the Cancer Society than those who filled it. They also "were more likely to help themselves to the candy bowl."
Two additional studies found a similar effect was produced from merely observing a vessel being emptied. "The fear of resource deficiency is so deep-rooted that merely watching someone engage in the act of emptying is sufficient to trigger a focus on the self, which has profound influence on a wide range of seemingly unrelated behaviors," the researchers write.
Levontin and her colleagues suggest we shouldn't be too surprised by these results, noting that the fear of depleted resources can be found in ancient texts ranging from Aesop's Fables to the Old Testament. "One of the first stories in the Bible," the write, "speaks about man's exile from a haven that offered infinite resources and a worry-free existence."
Still, it's striking to find that even symbolic reminders of emptiness are sufficient to inspire us to conserve our resources and curb our generosity. Perhaps to encourage donations, charities would be wise to offer up token gifts that make us feel resource-rich.
Something that slips neatly into a coat pocket might be ideal.
Pacific Standard grapples with the nation's biggest issues by illuminating why we do what we do. For more on the science of society, sign up for its weekly email update or subscribe to its bimonthly print magazine.
More from Pacific Standard...