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To Inspire People to Give, Be Public About Your Giving

11 Post author: peter_hurford 17 May 2013 06:58AM

Many people think it would be nicer if people were to give more money to non-profits, especially effective ones.  However, for most people, it doesn't even occur to them that they giving a large share of their salary to charity is something that people actually can do, or that people are doing on a regular basis.

Being public with one's pledge to donate not only spreads information about how easy it is to fight global poverty with a serious commitment, but that such commitments are the kind of thing that people can actually take.  By being public with these pledges, we can actually inspire people to give, where they otherwise wouldn't.

But how did people get stuck in a rut?  Why doesn't giving money come naturally?  And how would public declarations help dig people out of this rut?

 

The Bystander Effect and The Assumption of Self-Interest

First, to understand how to get people to give we have to understand why they currently do not.  There are a number of reasons, but one of the most prevalent is what's called the bystander effect.  While this effect is widely known in groups failing to respond to disasters right in front of their faces, it's magnified when the disaster is global poverty a continent or two away.  We think that because other people around us are not giving, it must also not be our responsibility, and we sure wouldn't want to be suckered into helping when no one else is doing their fair share.

Ever since Thomas Hobbes's The Leviathan, seeing human nature in terms of selfishness has been common, and persists to this day[1,2] as a strong and occasionally self-reinforcing belief[3,4].  People think of monetary incentives as being the most effective incentive for encouraging blood donations[5], even when this turns out to not be the case[6].  People greatly over-estimate the amount people will support a policy that favors them over other people[5].  As noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835, "Americans enjoy explaining almost every act of their lives on the principle of self-interest"[7].

This leads us to a natural assumption that donating to charity is irrational... or, at least, other people aren't doing it, so neither should I.  However, this norm of self-interest is largely a myth, and people seem to do better than most people expect.

 

Challenging the Self-Interest Norm

This means the self-interest norm has to be challenged, and if it is challenged, we can expect people to revise their selfish-based theory of human nature and turn to more selfless acts like charitable giving.  If we're interested in getting people to donate more than what they already do, we need to open people up to the idea that charitable giving cannot only be virtuous but expected, and can be done not only at the typical rate of 1%, but at rates of 10% or much higher[8].  We also should challenge the norm that charity should be silent and not spoken about, and instead mention it openly and proudly[9].

People tend to conform, both intentionally and unintentionally, adopting the actions of others[4], and end up unwilling to adopt contrary actions unless other people are also going along with them.  If peer pressure can make high schoolers turn to drug use, alcohol drinking, cigarette smoking, or even drop out of high school[10], surely it can stop people from giving.

 

For example, take the famous Asch Conformity Experiments.  Here, people were in a group and asked to look at a line and compare its length to three other lines on another card, and state which line matches the height of the first line.  The task is enormously simple, but is complicated by being in a group of several other people, all in on the experiment, all who give the identical wrong answer.

Asch found that many people would conform to this wrong answer, even against their better judgement.  However, by adding another subject to this experiment who would give the correct answer, the tendency to conform would drop dramatically, even though the correct answer is still in the minority.  Take away the partner, even halfway through the experiment with the same subject, and conformity shoots back up.

 

However, allowing people an escape from this norm can lead them to be able to increase their charitable donations.  In one field experiment, a radio station would mention to potential donors whenever a previous donor had donated $300, and they found that this increased donations by $13 more per person over the control condition, and these donors were also more likely to renew their memberships and donate more the next year compared to those in the control condition[11].

In a separate field experiment, donors gave more to a radio station when prompted with an amount that was higher than their previous contribution[12].  Lastly, a third field experiment found that student donors were more likely to give to funds for students when told that 64% of other students had donated than when they were told that 46% of other students had donated[13].

 

Overall, people are moved by seeing what others do, and can be tilted away from self-destructive norms by seeing other people go against the flow.  An organization like Giving What We Can making a public stand for giving can accomplish just that.  Make your giving public, and it should multiply as you inspire others.

 

Motivations and Fights for Status

Reflecting on the need to push up the norm to accurately reflect the giving nature of society, it seems like the pushback to privatize giving is harmful.  And I think it is.  But why does it come about in the first place?  Robert Wiblin speculates that being public about giving calls your motivations into question.  If you're only motivated by compassion for those in need, why do you need to boast?

Well, of course, there's an interest in raising the norm.  But let's assume that giving was really just a giant fight for status... would that be so bad?  All else being equal, I prefer pure intention to that of giving just to prove to others, but competing for status via donation oneupmanship is considerably more useful than competing for status via bigger houses, bigger cars, and bigger flatscreen TVs.

Or rather, people still end up competing over their charitable contributions, but it comes in the forms of significantly less-effective (though still arguably worthwhile) charitable competition, like volunteering, building schools, or adopting African children.  If, instead, we normalized people giving checks, at least more people could be helped while the status fight goes on.

 

Conclusion

Many people want to leave the world in a better place than they found it, perhaps even going as far as wanting to do the best they can.  To these people, I hope that the idea of donation, especially to effective causes in potentially large amounts ends up appealing.  But if this cool idea is seen as "boastful", it won't catch on, and won't get the publicity (I think) it deserves.

Moreover, people won't be able to network together and share information about more cost-effective charities or the latest trends in development economics, because everyone will be keeping it to themselves, ending up being collectively self-defeating.

We seem forced by society to pretend to be self-interested, because we're asked to not talk about our acts of kindness.  But this only goes to re-enforce the deadly cycle.  The only way to push ourselves out of this cycle is to demonstrate that some people do donate and push up this norm.  And groups like GivingWhatWeCan, 80000 Hours, and BolderGiving are working on doing just that.

Personally, I'd have to agree that this works -- I'm inspired by these stories, and I don't think I would ever be donating 10%+ without a group that makes it seem like a completely normal and awesome thing to do.

So is talking about donations too boastful?  I think, for the sake of those the donations help, we can afford a little boasting in this one area.

 

References and Notes

(Note: Most of these links open to PDFs.)

[1]: Barry Schwartz. 1986. The Battle for Human Nature: Science, Morality and Modern Life. Canada: Penguin Books.

[2]: Alfie Kohn. 1990.
The Brighter Side of Human Nature. New York: Basic Books.

[3]: Dale T. Miller. 1999. "The Norm of Self-Interest". American Psychologist 54 (12): 1053-1060.

[4]: John M. Darley and Russell H. Fazio. "Expectancy Confirmation Processes Arising in the Social Interaction Sequence". 1980. American Psychologist 35 (10): 867-881.

[5]: Dale T. Miller and Rebecca K. Ratner. 1998. "The Disparity Between the Actual and Assumed Power of Self-Interest". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74 (1): 53-62.

[6]: Nicola Lacetera, Mario Macis, and Robert Slonim. 2011. "Rewarding Altruism? A Natural Field Experiment". The National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper #17636.

[7]: Alexis de Tocqueville in J.P. Mayer ed., G. Lawrence, trans. 1969. 
Democracy in America. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, p546.

[8]: The Giving What We Can pledge requires 10% and this is already shockingly high for most, but people on 80000 Hours's member list or among Bolder Giving's stories donate up to 50% of their income or more!

[9]: Of course, I don't think we should mention it *all* the time -- we should recognize when is the time and place, and not be unreasonable.  On the same time, we shouldn't be completely silent.  Places like Facebook, personal blogs, and when the topic comes up for conversation all seem like fair game.

[10]: Alejandro Gaviria and Steven Raphael. 2001. "School-Based Peer Effects and Juvenile Behavior". The Review of Economics and Statistics 83 (2): 257-268.

[11]: Other conditions were $180, $75, or no prompt about previous donors at all.  Jen Shang and Rachel Croson. Forthcoming. “Field Experiments in Charitable Contribution: The Impact of Social Influence on the Voluntary Provision of Public Goods”. The Economic Journal.

[12]: Rachel Croson and Jen Shang. 2008. "The Impact of Downward Social Information on Contribution Decisions"Experimental Economics 11: 221-233.

[13]: Bruno S. Frey and Stephan Meier. 2004. "Social Comparisons and Pro-social Behavior: Testing 'Conditional Cooperation' in a Field Experiment". The American Economic Review 94 (5): 1717-1722.

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Also cross-posted on my blog.

Comments (15)

Comment author: someonewrongonthenet 17 May 2013 07:38:35AM *  6 points [-]

Motivations and Fights for Status - If you're only motivated by compassion for those in need, why do you need to boast?

If one does boast, though, it is perceived as a status raising attempt.

Now, if the boast actually raises status, that's great, but this isn't always the case. Because humans have a strong egalitarian instinct ("insulting the meat", Matthew 6:5, etc), whenever a purposeful attempt to boost status is perceived by others, it often backfires. This is the actual reason that people are hesitant to boast.

I've witnessed myself (mis)using egalitarian instinct this way - I recently came into contact with a person who boasted to refusing a stipend. They were also boasting about many other things unrelated to charity and mildly putting down others, and I came away with the impression that they were a very status-seeking person - even though one boasts was about an altruistic act, it still counted against them in my mind.

Can we come up with some effective ways to communicate what we have donated, which allow us to avoid the wrath of the egalitarian instinct? Donation drives often call out the numbers that people donate, so that people can plausible deny that they wanted to boast. Also, when people want to show off, they try to just casually work it into the conversation (again, to maintain plausible deniability). How can we generate plausibly deniability in this area efficiently? Are there any ways to accomplish the goal without invoking plausible deniability?

Comment author: Zaine 17 May 2013 03:41:10PM *  5 points [-]

Just have a place people can look as per Jeff Kaufman. Example conversation:

A: "... [taxes | charity | income | giving back | etcetera]."
B: "Ho-ho! [Obligatory calculated utility vs. warm fuzzies preface], so I try to just pick a percentage and be done with it."
C: "How much do you give?"
B: "I'd have to check to precise - I keep a log on [ _________ ] to keep track. I feel a lot better for example giving my falafel to a starving puppy on the street than picking my donation percentage, but knowing I do donate, and do so efficiently, helps me live with myself."
A: "What percentage on average do you give?"
B: "Depends on the year, financial pressures, how much I want to spend on personal things - honestly, I'd have to check. (I do remember my first year I managed to donate around [ __%])"
C: "So you don't really care about donating to charities, but do it anyway to make you feel better about yourself?"
A: "That sort of contradicts the whole spirit of giving-"
B: "Sorry, I should have been clearer. When I think about what I want to do with my life, the answer always comes back to: help as many people as much as I can. I'm not particularly suited to accomplish that goal in any means besides making money, so I make money and donate in order to satisfy my ambition. However, the whole act is remarkably lacking in emotional impact - I know I'm horrible for feeling this, but when I hear about others giving to pet causes they haven't scrutinised, I feel like I'm better than them. That's about the extent of the emotional impact of donating, for me. Help someone personally, though, and I feel like Superman."
A: "Your said goal in life is to help a bunch of people a whole lot, right?"
B: "Essentially, yes."
A: "But fulfilling that goal doesn't make you happy - it just lets you get by; you do other 'personal' things to be happy, for which you spend money from time to time."
B: "Pretty much."
A: "And you feel like you're better than other people because you think your cause(s) help(s) more people."
B: "It's still great they donate, but I get frustrated they don't put more effort into it, and I feel good about myself for having done the effort."
C: "Do you think you're better than us?"
B: "I'm afraid the logical conclusion of this hypothetical would be yes. Perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned the superiority complex bit."
A: "Yes, perhaps not."
C: "We might have caught on, then."
B: "Terribly sorry."
A: "Quite alright."
C: "Yes. Have a good night."
A: "Yes."
B: "...(sigh)"

Comment author: TheOtherDave 17 May 2013 02:28:45PM 3 points [-]

Can we come up with some effective ways to communicate what we have donated, which allow us to avoid the wrath of the egalitarian instinct?

Pull-based rather than push-based systems can help with this. That is, if I perceive myself as having looked up your donations, rather than perceiving you as having informed me of them, I'm less likely to perceive you as boasting. The example you give of donation drives reporting amounts takes advantage of this.

Making reporting the unmarked case can also help with this. If I expect everyone to report their charitable donations (for example, if it's mandatory), I'm less likely to perceive the fact that you reported your donations as boasting.

Indirection can also help with this. If a third party reports your donations, I'm less likely to perceive you as boasting. (The "wing-man" strategy for dating is similar to this.)

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 17 May 2013 08:25:27AM 2 points [-]

Can we come up with some effective ways to communicate what we have donated, which allow us to avoid the wrath of the egalitarian instinct?

This is the critical part.

Quick idea: You could create a "charity group" which would have membership, and would encourage people to give money to charity. The actual amounts of money given to specific causes would be publicly reported with members anonymized, like this: "In our group G, unspecified individuals donated to this cause the following amounts: X1, X2, X3."

Your name would not be connected with the amount directly, but as a known member of the group you would still get some status indirectly. You could say: "My group supports a lot of causes, see here." It does not sound as selfish as when you speak about yourself. Also, the total numbers would be more impressive ("I gave $100" vs "our group of ten people gave $1000").

Possible free-rider problem. Could be overcome by making the donations non-anonymous within the group, and anonymized only for the outside world. Or even anonymized for most of members (except those who do the accounting). For example as a member you precommit to give at least $X every year through the group, and this is verified. This information could also be made semi-known to the public (you don't announce it too much, but it is in FAQ on your webpage).

Comment author: ModusPonies 17 May 2013 05:42:54PM 6 points [-]

I think you just independently derived GWWC.

Comment author: someonewrongonthenet 17 May 2013 08:40:51AM *  0 points [-]

If you are going to make a charity group anyway though, you might as well announce the name of the donor. The social pressures to donate will be higher if you announce the name of the donor, and as explained earlier the donor will not be punished by egalitarian instinct because the donor did not choose to have their name published in the public report - in fact the donor will get a higher status.

Could be overcome by making the donations non-anonymous within the group, and anonymized only for the outside world.

That could work! That way, you can tell outsiders "We are 20 people who raise a total of $10,000, will you help us?" It creates the feeling that everyone is donating, and doesn't sound like boasting.

However, following the principles outlined above, within the group you wouldn't want any anonymity at all (unless there is some hidden benefit to anonymity over plausibly-deniable publicity which you are seeing that I am not).

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 17 May 2013 09:23:31AM 0 points [-]

the donor will not be punished by egalitarian instinct because the donor did not choose to have their name published in the public report

I think this would work fine. I would probably put an emphasis in the report on the group first -- start by speaking about common effort and how much the group did together; provide individual names and numbers at the bottom of the page, or as a sidebar on the right side of the page.

Comment author: elharo 17 May 2013 10:47:55AM *  4 points [-]

Sometimes you have to worry about side effects. Friendly-HI recently noted in the munchkin thread that one of the "best predictors of reported happiness is how much a person tends to compare herself to others." Comparing how much you give to charity may well make many donors worse off, even if it encourages more giving. Not only does it indicate that someone is not giving as much. It likely also indicates that someone is not as wealthy or well off.

Noticing that your next door neighbor gives the local Synagogue twice as much per month as you do, might inspire you to up your game. Noticing that they give twice as much per month as you pay in rent might make you stop attending. And on the other side, very wealthy donors may be disinclined to give what they can afford because they don't want to embarrass their friends and neighbors, or do not wish to reveal just how wealthy they are. I suspect this is one reason many organizations that do publish donor lists include an option for donating anonymously.

Comment author: peter_hurford 17 May 2013 02:38:11PM *  6 points [-]

Noticing that your next door neighbor gives the local Synagogue twice as much per month as you do, might inspire you to up your game. Noticing that they give twice as much per month as you pay in rent might make you stop attending. And on the other side, very wealthy donors may be disinclined to give what they can afford because they don't want to embarrass their friends and neighbors, or do not wish to reveal just how wealthy they are. I suspect this is one reason many organizations that do publish donor lists include an option for donating anonymously.

I think this effect could be lessened by reporting one's donation in a percentage, rather than absolute value. Wealthier people could still afford more, but it wouldn't look as bad.

On some level, people would just have to realize that they can only do as much as they can, but it isn't out of the question to do more. I've seen some people on smaller incomes still manage to donate large percentages.

Comment author: William_Quixote 17 May 2013 06:28:45PM *  3 points [-]

Less Wrong is a self selected group that's probably non representative of the general population in several ways. So as a quick test of the above post as it applies to this group:

My 2012 Donations

Against Malaria 1,000

Political Causes 1,000

Disease research of significance to people I know (eg someone says their aunt died of X and asks friends to donate something to X research in her memory) 200

Free Stuff I'd be willing to pay for (eg Wikipedia) 150

Institutions helpful to me when I was younger ( eg high school and college) 125

Having seen someone publicize their donations:

Do you feel more or less inclined to make donations than you did previously?

Do you feel more or less inclined to publicize donations than you did previously?

Are you going to publicize your donations in this thread? 

Prediction: if many people post, my total (excluding political donations will be close to the median) low confidence

Comment author: someonewrongonthenet 17 May 2013 09:25:34PM *  6 points [-]

Do you feel more or less inclined to make donations than you did previously?

No, but other LW related things (givewell, giving what we can) made me more inclined to make donations. The story of Zell Kravinsky made me more inclined to do so as well. Also, the overall discussion (not specifically your comment) causes the "charity" meme to slightly grow in size within my mind.

Are you going to publicize your donations in this thread?

I would publicize my donations if I had made any. By the logic of the main post, am I doing a dis-service to norm creation by admitting to not donating?

Being a student, my net worth generally fluctuates around zero and would go negative without parental support. Which isn't an excuse at all - I could be more frugal and ask my parents to donate the difference...but for some reason it is more intuitive to first become self sufficient and then donate, rather than use methods to convince parents to donate what they might have spent on me.

Comment author: jkaufman 18 May 2013 03:23:30AM 5 points [-]

I like the Giving What We Can norm of "give 10% of income when you have it and 1% of your spending money otherwise". That's 1% of whatever you have for eating out, going to the movies, etc. While 1% is small, it keeps you in the habit of giving, makes you think about where to give, and demonstrates to yourself and others that you're committed.

I suspect that asking your parents if you could be more frugal and they would donate the difference would just strain your relationship to little gain.

Comment author: mare-of-night 23 May 2013 03:06:06AM 5 points [-]

I suspect that asking your parents if you could be more frugal and they would donate the difference would just strain your relationship to little gain.

This is why I never tried it. When choosing which college to go to, I did ask whether going to the vastly cheaper of two options and donating the difference was an option, and was told it wasn't, and I could tell that similar suggestions along those lines wouldn't go over well. (In retrospect, it was good they kept me from doing unusual things like that, and that I'm so influenced by social norms - taking beliefs seriously while still a stupid kid in other ways is dangerous.)

Comment author: [deleted] 18 May 2013 04:41:52PM 0 points [-]

I could be more frugal and ask my parents to donate the difference

I'm not sure they would accept that.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 18 May 2013 06:59:13AM 4 points [-]

Hmm ... sure, I'll go along with this.

2012 donations:

Against Malaria — $5500
CFAR — $500
Ada Initiative — $500
Kim Suozzi's cryonics fund — $250
Local cultural groups (theater, puzzles) — maybe ~$50 total