Doing good for (maybe) nothing: How reward uncertainty shapes observer responses to prosocial behavior

Ike Silver*, Jackie Silverman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


When firms or individuals stand to benefit from doing good, observers often question their motivations and discount their good deeds. We propose that this attribution process is sensitive not only to the presence of extrinsic incentives, but also to their prior likelihoods. Across eleven studies, observers treat uncertain rewards (vs. equally valuable certain rewards) as weaker signals of extrinsic motivation. Consequently, observers judge actors who do good when facing uncertain incentives as more purely motivated, benevolent, and likable, and they prefer products from brands that incur profit uncertainty when launching CSR initiatives. Even actors who are handsomely rewarded for doing good are judged favorably if rewards were uncertain at the outset. These effects may stem from more general processes of counterfactual attribution: Actors who do good knowing they might not be rewarded for it may seem more like they would have been willing to act without any incentive at all.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number104113
JournalOrganizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes
StatePublished - Jan 2022


  • Attribution
  • Prosocial behavior
  • Tainted altruism
  • Uncertainty

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management


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