As behavioral scientists to the World Bank, we at the Mind, Behavior, and Development (eMBeD) Unit tend to see behavioral science everywhere. With the holiday season fast approaching, it’s no surprise that we can apply behavioral science to any number of seasonally appropriate channels, including charitable giving. Reciprocity, it turns out, affects us at every age, and can be a good lesson for charitable giving campaigns.
Have you ever been conflicted by the word charity or the idea of charity? I have. I cannot pinpoint exactly why, but I’ve always had a philosophical dilemma about what it is, and how it should be. I was recently prompted to think about it again when I read a few articles and listened to a segment on National Public Radio that talked about the different ways in which people and institutions ‘give’ and whether or not these are good ideas.
A New York Times article, Is It Nuts to Give to the Poor Without Strings Attached talked about an organization called GiveDirectly which gives money directly to poor people without any preconditions. The idea is that people know best what they need, and providing money with strings attached is patronizing and less effective. GiveDirectly hired independent researchers to conduct a randomized controlled trial to see if this is an effective way of giving. Results are due later this year and they will be made public.
In a previous blog post, I wrote about a small airfare tax that’s been implemented in a number of countries to help fight three of the world’s deadliest diseases. The idea behind the initiative (UNITAID) is to raise funds by applying a small levy on domestic and international flights; a levy so small that most people do not even take notice. It’s interesting what the success of this method says about us and human behavior. Let’s say, had a traveler been given the option to donate $1 before purchasing the air ticket, the outcome of UNITAID would probably have been very different. While studies show that there’s a strong connection between giving and the level of happiness, most people opt out. Why?
David Brooks of The New York Times points out that “we spend trillions of dollars putting policies and practices into place, but most of these efforts are based on the crudest possible psychological guesswork.” Understanding behavioral sciences is important. As he points out, sometimes “behavioral research leads us to completely change how we think about an issue,” and result in new policy approaches. He’s referring to one well-known example, which has to do with default settings: “Roughly 98 percent of people take part in organ donor programs in European countries where you have to check a box to opt out. Only 10 percent or 20 percent take part in neighboring countries where you have to check a box to opt in.” There’s something magical about the check box!