Why do people give to others even when it is costly for themselves? In our lab, we apply approach-avoidance theories of social motivation to understand what motivates people to give to or make sacrifices for close others, as well as the personal and relationship consequences of giving in pursuit of different goals. Approach-avoidance motivational theory draws an important distinction between approach goals, which, in the context of relationships, involve pursuing positive experiences such as a partner’s pleasure or increased intimacy, and avoidance goals, which involve averting negative experiences such as a partner’s disappointment or relationship conflict. The work in our lab has shown that behaviors motivated by approach goals promote positive emotions and relationship quality, whereas behaviors undertaken to avoid negative outcomes arouse negative emotions and can have devastating consequences for relationships.
Emotion Regulation and Authenticity
Sometimes negative emotions such as irritation, resentment, or even anger can arise when people give up what they personally want to benefit their partner. Because intense emotions are inherent to sacrifice, how people deal with or regulate these emotions may be crucial. What should people do when their actual emotional experience is incongruent with what they personally hope to feel or would like others to feel? Is it beneficial to try to conceal or suppress negative emotions in these situations? In some ways, suppressing emotions could be seen as an intuitive way to keep the peace and manage situations of conflicting interests in relationships. However, the work in our lab has been crucial in showing that when people actively try to conceal their feelings about sacrifice from their partner, they feel that they are not being authentic or “true to themselves,” and these resulting feelings of inauthenticity detract from both partners’ emotional experiences and feelings about the relationship.
Why do some people actually seem to enjoy making sacrifices? Many studies have now shown that receiving care or social support from others can be good for the self. However, a small but growing body of research is beginning to show that giving care to others can paradoxically be rewarding for the person who provides care. In communal relationships—such as those we have with family members, romantic partners, and close friends—people provide care non-contingently, that is, they prioritize giving care to the person who needs it most and do not expect to be reciprocated for their efforts. The work in our lab investigates the rewards that communally motivated individuals receive from giving to others, as well as the ways in which communal giving benefits relationships. Our work has shown that highly communal people are more willing to care for and make sacrifices for others, and that they do not give to others begrudgingly—they actually enjoy giving up their own interests to benefit a relationship partner. We have demonstrated the benefits of being communal for sacrifices made in daily life, when people “give” to their partner in the bedroom, and when parents care for their children.