British Columbia

Criminals and anti-social people like giving gifts and that could help with rehabilitation

New research shows even people who exhibit consistent anti-social or even criminal behaviour report feeling higher levels of happiness when they give gifts compared to receiving them.

Study author believes findings could inform correctional work

Inmates at the Northeast Nova Scotia Correctional Facility started a Christmas gift-giving drive for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pictou County. (Submitted by Hannah Cavicchi-Burrows)

It's an age-old adage: 'tis better to give than to receive.

Katherine Hanniball, a Simon Fraser University clinical psychology doctoral student, has published new research showing even people who exhibit consistent anti-social or even criminal behaviour in their lives report feeling higher levels of happiness when they give, compared to when they receive, gifts.

"Lots of research has demonstrated that people report feelings of happiness and satisfaction after giving to others," Hanniball told On The Coast guest host Margaret Gallagher. "Surprisingly, this seems to be a fact that holds even in unlikely places.

"We're an incredibly pro social species… Giving actually feels really good."

Hannibal conducted four studies with over 2,500 adults who reported serious and extensive criminal histories and youth who were at high risk for offending.

Individuals who engaged in pro-social action reported higher levels of happiness than those who engaged in self-directed spending.

She believes this could have implications for rehabilitating — and humanizing — criminals we may think of as irredeemable.

Could help with rehabilitation

Hannbiall's research involved giving money to study participants and allowing them to either spend it on themselves or others or surveying participants about times they spent money on themselves or others.

New research shows it actually is better to give than to receive and givers experience greater happiness than those on the receiving end of a gift. (Getty Images)

In all cases, she said, spending money on others resulted in more happiness.

"Behaviours that result in positive feelings or happiness are more likely to be repeated in the future," she said. "This can serve as a powerful incentive to repeat similar behaviour in the future."

Hanniball believes this could inform correctional work. If an offender is sentenced to community service, giving them the choice of how they complete that service could assist with rehabilitation.

"In order to feel good about something, it really helps to feel as though you made the choice to do it," she said.

Hanniball's research was recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Listen to the full story:

New research shows even people who exhibit consistent anti-social or even criminal behaviour report feel higher levels of happiness when they give gifts as compared to when they receive them. 6:42

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast

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