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Mark Snyder

Mark Snyder, a McKnight Presidential Chair in Psychology at the University of Minnesota, is leading the longest-running study on selfish altruism in the country.

Studies in selfish altruism

U professor studies the motivations behind charity work

By Tim Brady

June 13, 2006

More than twenty years ago, psychology professor Mark Snyder began pondering questions that still shape his research. The AIDS crisis was just beginning, and instances of noble volunteerism, including hospice workers caring for the dying, abounded. What makes people do it? he wondered. Why do they volunteer? And why do they keep coming back to help? Snyder's findings turned out to be more complex and surprising than anyone could have predicted. Volunteers come to their work for both humanitarian and self-centered reasons. "But our most striking finding was that if you look down the line at who's going to continue with the work, it is those volunteers who derive personal benefits from what they're doing," says Snyder. "That's what keeps them coming back. True altruism can be a selfish thing."

Snyder's groundbreaking research remains the longest-running study of its kind in the country. And it has spawned new studies through the psychology department's Center for the Study of the Individual and Society (CSIS), involving Snyder's colleagues in psychology, political science, and sociology. Most recently, faculty members have joined together across disciplines to create what Snyder calls "a joint inventory," which will delineate and measure the various forms of community participation being studied by CSIS members. Plans are to publish the results as guides for organizations who work with volunteers.

"We study volunteers of all kinds," says Snyder. "We look at people who form community organizations; we look at people in leadership positions in community organizations; we look at people who participate in the political process.

"And we're asking a number of different questions. For instance, do people who are motivated to volunteer in a social service setting have the same sorts of motivations that are relevant to someone who signs on to a political campaign?"

The emerging answer to that question echoes Snyder's earlier findings. "There's a set of motivations that all have the same thing in common," he says. "It's not just about what you want to do for others, but what you want to do for yourself. And in all cases, I think, the key to success is matching up opportunities for involvement with motivations. Where those line up, you find enduring volunteerism."

Snyder, who holds the University's McKnight Presidential Chair in Psychology, has published more than 200 articles and received a slew of research grants from, among others, the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the American Foundation for AIDS Research. In 2005, Snyder received The Donald Campbell Award from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, perhaps the most prestigious research award in social psychology.

Of his own charity work, which includes frequent requests to give advice on volunteering to community organizations, Snyder says, "I'm sort of a case history of my own research. I get so much back from the communities that I help, that it doesn't feel much like work at all."

Republished from CLA Today, spring 2006, a publication by the College of Liberal Arts.

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