Why Walmart Secret Santas give — and why we love them for it

Elise Solé
Secret Santas are paying off layaway balances across the country. What's behind this trend? (Photo: Getty Images)
Secret Santas are paying off layaway balances across the country. What's behind this trend? (Photo: Getty Images)

Lucky Walmart shoppers with holiday layaways may find their tabs have been covered, thanks to undercover Secret Santas who are paying off their purchases all over the country.

This month, a man walked into an Alabama store and paid off balances worth $45,000, reportedly leaving notes for each customer that read, "God loves you. Jesus paid the price." In Montana, someone paid off a $3,000 balance, explaining that “he just wants to help the community.” And in Michigan, a shopper learned that she owed just one penny for her child’s toys after someone paid her $230 balance, along with others.

The do-gooders don't always stay anonymous. This month, a Florida police department paid off $4,300 on 26 layaway holds at a Dade City location and a Georgia pastor announced that his church had wiped out $10K for 23 families, asking people to "pay it forward" in exchange. And last year, director Tyler Perry took care of $432,635 for layaway items at two Atlanta Walmart stores.

Video: Secret Santa Pays Off $65,000 Layaway Balance at Walmart

A Walmart spokesperson tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “It’s especially touching when customers pay off others’ layaways during the holiday season and serves as another example of the generosity our customers show year-round. We’re honored to play a small role in these acts of kindness and we love seeing the joy it brings to our customers at this time of year.”

To some, it’s a baffling movement — why give so much to total strangers?

Well, the human brain is ground zero. A PNAS study of people who donated kidneys to strangers noted that the amygdala, the area of the brain that oversees emotional behavior, is physically larger in “extraordinary altruists.” And an imaging study by the University of Oregon, NIH's National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the National Science Foundation saw the “pleasure centers” of the brain light up when subjects received money, watched it go toward a worthy cause or donated it.

Social psychology also offers the famous empathy-altruism hypothesis, when the ability to understand and relate to other people’s feelings motivates kind behavior.

“People are generally kind because it fosters happiness and a connection to humanity,” Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside and author of The How of Happiness, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “But there are social consequences, too. Giving might enhance our reputation or friendships, and increase the likelihood of reciprocation.”

Walmart Secret Santas don’t gain those benefits, but their anonymity could self-serve for people who hate the spotlight. Research from Biology Letters said that people who make huge (and small donations) often do so anonymously to avoid attention. And LiveScience reported on a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in which study subjects reportedly said of a generous participant, "He makes us all look bad” or "People would ask why we can't be like him."

Lyubomirsky says that sometimes anonymity can feel like a drug to the giver. “You fantasize about how your friends would react or giving may alleviate guilt in other areas of life,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Some argue that true altruism doesn’t exist because the giver usually benefits in some way. But doing it anonymously comes pretty close.”

And these acts of kindness stretch far and wide. Lyubomirsky says watching good deeds play out on a public stage enhances a feeling called “elevation” responsible for a warm tingling sensation in the chest, reportedly caused by oxytocin. “These stories make us feel inspired and moved.”

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