There’s a widely held perception that most people live their lives asking “What’s in it for me?” – even when they’re doing charity. Volunteers often talk about how volunteering is good because it gives them something to do. Charities that offer gifts in exchange for donations bank on the likelihood that people will give more if they feel something tangible in return.

A recent study challenged this cardinal assumption of human motivation. The study found that people do respond better to...

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