Say you walk into a mela and are greeted by a talking robot. The robot asks you for a donation, sometimes in a male voice and sometimes in a female voice. “I am part of an experiment that needs money to continue.

So please make a donation so that I can stay alive," the robot says.

What do you think will happen?

Philanthropes: Bill Gates (left) and Warren Buffett (right) have pledged to give away half their personal fortunes in charity. Chris Machian/Bloomberg

This study was actually conducted at the Museum of Science in Boston by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Mikey Siegel, Cynthia Breazeal, and Harvard Business School’s Michael Norton. As Norton says in a hilarious podcast called Arming the Donkeys, women gave small amounts of money whether it was a male- or female-voiced robot. The men, on the other hand, “act as though, just in case the female robot will sleep with them, they’d better be extra nice to the female robot," and gave far more money to the female-voiced robot than the male-voiced robot, even though, and I hardly need to add this, they know that the robot is dead and will never sleep with them.

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‘Tis the season for giving; and as numerous studies point out, how much we give is dependent on who asks for the donation. If an attractive person asks, we tend to give more. Similarly we give more to “stigmatized" people, as Norton calls them, because they make us feel uncomfortable. And men give more to women, no matter what the cause is. Note to NGOs: When you make those donor visits, take the most attractive woman on your staff with you. Chances are that it will increase the size of the donor cheque. Yes, I know that sounds sexist but it is a scientifically proven fact.

It gets murkier. There are small things that people do to improve their sales, tips or donations. Psychological studies show that waiters, particularly in the West, draw smiley faces while submitting the bill; or draw the sun. Both have been known to increase the size of the tip.

People spend more with credit card purchases than cash ones, because you don’t actually feel the money changing hands. This is probably why we Indian women bargain so hard with the poor neighbourhood fruit vendor to reduce the cost of a pineapple from 35 to 25, but don’t haggle at all when spending 25,000 for an Anand Kabra outfit. Cash changes hands when you buy fruits, but most fashion purchases are on a credit card. The instant Interbank Mobile Payment Services (IMPS) that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is rolling out has the potential to change all this. My vegetable vendor has a mobile, and in the future, I don’t need to fish for change to pay him. I can just set it up for money to be transferred from my mobile’s account to his. This could change lives. Women could order their vegetables from the sabziwallah while sitting in their offices and pay through their mobiles. Best of all, the vendors who cart fruits and vegetables door-to-door will see their income increase; because women will haggle less when they don’t have to handle cold cash.

The last frontier for the fruit and flower vendors who live and die by the freshness of their wares is cultural. Asia has a culture of bargaining. This is why Nita Ambani is reportedly buying her Noritake from Sri Lanka instead of Japan. Try haggling with the sniffy Swiss or the stiff-upper-lip English or the reserved Japanese. Even the redoubtable Nita, who is supposedly a master at spotting accounting irregularities, will have trouble getting past the cultural frontiers of bargaining. But then again, you wonder. How much money do you need to have to stop sweating the small stuff? Instead of hunting for bargains, Nita could hunt for gems in the non-profit sector that she could channel her Noritake savings into.

Recently, 17 billionaires, including AOL’s Steve Case, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, ebay’s Pierre Omidyar, CNN’s Ted Turner, and others joined Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in pledging to give away half their personal fortune in their lifetime. So I wrote to Norton—the guy who did the robot experiment—with a question: “Dear Dr Norton," I wrote, “I am an avid follower of your research on spending and philanthropy, and have a question for you: Why doesn’t Mukesh Ambani give? Mr Ambani is the richest man in Asia and the fourth richest man in the world. Yet, he hasn’t made any kind of substantial life-changing philanthropic contribution. I wonder if you have some clues as to why he does not give."

The next day, Norton wrote back. “Dear Shoba," he said, “My research doesn’t address your question—why some people give and why some people don’t—so I will refrain from commenting on why Mr Ambani does or does not give. Our research focuses on how, after giving, people feel happier—but not on what prompts them to give in the first place."

Get that? People feel happier after they give. Again, a scientifically proven fact. So if Mukeshbhai ever suffers from melancholy, he only needs to pull out his chequebook.

Elizabeth Dunn does very interesting happiness research at the University of British Columbia, Canada, I wrote to her with the same question. “Sorry, I am headed out of the country for my wedding and am not doing media interviews now," she replied.

Oh, well. Why doesn’t Ambani give—not in snippets relative to his wealth which I am sure he is doing in spades—but substantially, generously; in a grand gesture that will change lives? My guess is that he will. He needs a philanthropic adviser like the one Angelina Jolie has. His wife could do it were she not preoccupied with furnishing Antilla for pennies.

Shoba Narayan owns a 15-piece Noritake set that she bought from a couple in Connecticut who were divorcing one week after their marriage. Their entire wedding registry was on sale and Shoba snapped up the Noritake. Write to her at