Psychology professor Omri Gillath designs experiments to test a person’s generosity

Kansas University associate professor of social psychology, Omri Gillath talks with Journal-World reporter Shaun Hittle, who is wearing a net of electrodes used for measuring brain waves relative to Gillath's research in measuring one's willingness to be generous, Thursday, June 23, 2011, at a lab in Fraser Hall.

If you’re planning to volunteer for one of Kansas University psychology professor Omri Gillath’s experiments, be warned: There’s a good possibility he’ll try to trick you with subliminal messages.

But it’s all for a good cause, as the experiments are designed to increase generosity.

A recent such experiment Gillath and some graduate assistants completed works like this:

Participants wear a brainwave cap and sit in front of a computer and play a game. In the simulation, a screen pops up with some basic information about a fictional person, such as age, college major or occupation, and gender. Participants see the information and are asked how much fictional money they’d like to give to the person based solely on the basic information. Sometimes when you give, you’re rewarded with extra money, sometimes not.

What you may not notice, however, are “priming” words — promoting love and security –that quickly flash on the screen. And the words actually work, Gillath said, as participants give more after the words flash.

“It’s actually changing people’s behavior,” he said. “If we can get people to feel that others love them. … They become more generous.”

Gillath’s generosity experiment is an example of the unusual work he does at KU. Topics of study have included sexual relationships, Facebook “defriending,” and why men and women lie to significant others.

And it’s the relationship research that catches the eye of national media, as Gillath says he frequently gets calls from reporters — particularly around Valentine’s Day — looking for comment on the birds and the bees.

However, he also gets emails and even phone calls from regular people looking for love advice.

Once on a four-hour plane ride, the passenger next to him asked about his work. And for those four hours, Gillath said the man told him his whole life story, looking for pearls of relationship wisdom.

“I’m not Dr. Phil,” Gillath joked.

It can also get a little tricky, and Gillath — married with a 5-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son — said he has to work hard to keep his work from creeping into his own life.

“You don’t want to turn your friends and family into subjects,” he said.

Gillath, originally from Israel, came to KU in 2006 to continue work on research in social psychology, which focuses on the psychology of society and relationships. Instead of focusing on psychology topics that can get a little depressing, Gillath said he strives to look for ways to positively create change in people’s behavior — whether it’s in someone’s love life or charitable work.

“How can we make people see the bright side?” said Gillath of his research goals.