Inescapable Karma

In the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review this week, A. J. Jacobs explains how he managed to write so many book “blurbs” that his agent and editor had to stage an intervention. It’s a short, fun read in which Jacobs takes a humorous approach to blurbing, but also tells us why he does it. Here’s the passage that jumped out at me:

First, publishing is a cruel business. Every month, 40 good books come out and 37 of them slip into oblivion. I’m not even sure if blurbs make a difference in sales, but I figured, if I can help a bit, I should. My fellow prolific blurber Gretchen Rubin, whose book “The Happiness Project” I extolled as “filled with great insights,” puts it this way: “When, as a new writer, I was suffering the uncomfortable process of asking for blurbs, I swore that if anyone ever asked me, I’d blurb that book if I possibly could. Plus, while I don’t really believe in karma, I sort of believe in karma.

That bit at the end about karma – it seems like a contradiction, doesn’t it? Either you believe in karma or you don’t, right? You may believe, as Buddhists do, that in addition to physical laws of cause and effect, there is a moral law too. Do a good deed and good things will happen to you; do a bad deed and, sooner or later, misfortune will befall you. Or you don’t believe it – karma is just a superstition, like believing a broken mirror causes bad luck, that has no tangible effect on the world.


Simultaneously disbelieving karma and “sort of believing it” may be a logical contradiction, but in reality it’s actually very common for people to be “of two minds” when it comes to these sorts of magical beliefs. While some people endorse karma without reservation, many of us would reject the notion that the universe is governed by laws of moral cause and effect, but we often still behave as if we believed it.

In this month’s issue of Psychological Science Ben Converse, Jane Risen*, and Travis Carter take up the question of karma and how it plays out in the real world (PDF). They surmised that people would be most likely to turn to karma when there was something they wanted, but getting it was not under their control. Think, for instance, about when you’re waiting for the results of a medical test or a college application. When there’s nothing left for you to do to influence the outcome, you’re in the hands of fate – that’s when it might seem wise to invest in some good karma.

They started by testing whether just thinking about something that you want to happen, but is outside your control, makes you more likely to do something nice to boost your karma. In a lab study conducted with 95 undergraduates at the University of Chicago (not people who you would necessarily expect to believe much in karma), the researchers asked half the people to write about an uncertain outcome they were anticipating, while the other half wrote about something else. Next, thinking the study was over, each study participant was asked whether they would be willing to do an additional task, only now instead of getting paid, the money would go to charity. Among people who had just written about something they currently wanted, 94% agreed to help, compared to only 78% among people who had not. You could easily imagine that thinking about something they wanted would have made people more selfish, but it didn’t. Instead, thinking about something that they wanted to happen to them led them to be more helpful, as if they were investing in karma.

help wanted 2
help wanted 2

With this evidence in hand the researchers moved their investigation into the field. They went to a job fair and approached people who were looking for a job and asked them a few short questions. They asked half of them questions about parts of the job search they could control (e.g., preparing well for interviews), and the other half about things they couldn’t control (e.g., whether there would be any jobs available). The researchers wanted to know whether the job-seekers would be more charitable when they were focused on aspects of the job search that were outside of their control. That is, would they invest in karma when they needed a helping hand from fate?

In exchange for participating, people received a ticket for a $100 raffle. After answering the researchers’ initial questions, they were asked how much of the $100 they would be willing to donate if they won. People who had answered questions about the controllable part of their job search were willing to donate just under $21. But those who were focused on things that were outside their control, and needed karmic intervention, were willing to donate almost $35.

These results suggest that even if you don't explicitly endorse the notion of karma, you may still end up behaving as if you do. A.J. Jacobs may not really believe in karma either, but I suspect that he may be more likely to agree to write a blurb when he has a book that's about to hit the shelves. And if he focuses on the uncontrollable factors that lead 37 good books out of 40 to slip into oblivion, he may be even more likely to take up the charge.

* I'm married to Jane Risen; I must have built up a lot of good karma.