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To Give or Not to Give: Getting into Your Head

Johanna Martinsson's picture

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!

Generosity is said to be a deeply rooted practice in all cultures, but the reason behind the behavior is not well understood.  No wonder, delving into the issue of giving, there’s a lot of interesting and recent research available.  There’s even a Science of Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame in the U.S., which aims to better understand why some people give and others don’t.

A Harvard study found that it’s in our gut to give. The researchers continuously found that the more impulsive people are in making decisions to give, the more generous, while the more time people take dwelling on their decision, the less the contribution.  Jen Shang, a philanthropic psychologist (yes, this is an emerging academic discipline), gives some specific thoughts to donor behavior and what makes us open up our wallets. Once a charity has caught our attention, she points out that for us to give money we must trust that the organization can achieve what we want them to achieve with our limited funds, and we must be satisfied with how they treat us as supporters.  Ms. Shang further points out that the commitment must be meaningful to the individual. She says, “The psychological transformation from paying attention to giving money is the process of integrating that cause from the external world into one’s most inner sense of who they are.”

Peter Singer, a philosopher and professor at Princeton University, says that “futility thinking” plays a role in our deciding on whether to give. He says, “Giving money to help the poor is, we say, just drops in the ocean. We focus on those we cannot save rather than on those we can. People will give more to save 80% of 100 lives at risk than they will to save 20% of 1,000 lives at risk – in other words, more to save 80 lives rather than to save 200 lives.”  To overcome psychological barriers to giving, he suggests that individuals will be more inclined to give if they know that others are.  This was evident in a recent study, which involved subjects in gaming with strangers. It was found that social networks inspire generosity. Specifically, “generosity is learned, it’s contagious and most effective when it’s a shared experience.”

‘Conspicuous giving’ is a relatively new term in the “generosity world.” It’s defined as “the visible act of giving money or time for charity.” Experts say that “more and more, people are seeking prestige, recognition and public adulation for their giving, or are donating because of social pressure.”  While the concept of giving to receive recognition is not new, they point out that today’s media-saturated society has heavily influenced the concept of giving. For example, there’s an added pressure and expectation among celebrities and philanthropists to donate heavily. While celebrities can be a powerful force in bringing attention to charities and influencing others to donate, the intention and commitment may not always be at the level Ms. Shang is referring to.  Also, any bad publicity around the celebrity can obviously cause harm to the charity. A good recent example is that of Lance Armstrong and what his acknowledgment to doping has done to the Livestrong Foundation (although it’s still too early to tell the true effects of the scandal). ‘Conspicuous giving,’ however, is not just about celebrities.  According to Professor Margrit Talpalaru, at the University of Alberta, the pressure to give has trickled down from the very wealthy to ordinary people.

To sum up, the reasoning behind our action to give or not to give is not that simple.  The points raised in this post, however, give some thoughts as to why we may opt out and why methods like the airfare levy are successful. While it’s in our gut to give, we may feel less inclined to do so if we don’t feel a connection with the charity, and if we don’t know if others are donating. Also, it appears that giving is the most effective when it’s shared among others.  It’s no surprise then that social media is making a great impact on giving, as the infographic below from 2012 attests.

2012: It Was a Very Good Year for Social Giving [Infographic by MDG Advertising]
by MDG Advertising

Image courtesy of vinnond/

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