17 MARCH 2017
There are several questions that have fascinated behavioural scientists for decades: why do people ignore information that is right in front of us? Why do we seem to care so little about our long-term futures? And why do we give money to charity? Behavioural science can help us to unpack the question further.
Researchers have looked into why people donate, why they don’t do it as much as they would hope to and how to bridge this gap. The explanations for charitable giving fall into three broad categories, from the purely altruistic – I donate because I value the social good done by the charity. The “impurely” altruistic – I donate because I extract value from knowing I contribute to the social good for the charity. And the the not-at-all altruistic – I donate because I want to show off to potential mates how rich I am.
But are these motives strong enough to enable people to donate as much as they would want to? Most people support charities in one way or another, but often we struggle to make donations as often as we think we should. Although many people would like to leave a gift to charity in their will, they forget about it when the time comes. Our research shows (pdf) that if the will-writer just asks someone if they would like to donate, they are more likely to consider it and the rate of donation roughly doubles.
Hearts over heads
Many people are also aware that they should donate to the causes that have the highest impact, but facts and figures are less attractive than narratives. In a series of experiments, it was found that people are much more responsive to charitable pleas that feature a single, identifiable beneficiary, than they are to statistical information about the scale of the problem being faced. Further work also discoveredthat advertising which emphasises the proven effectiveness of the charity does not increase giving. Other evidence suggests that the effect of this information can actually be the opposite. In short, when it comes to charitable giving, we are often ruled by our hearts and not our heads.
Influenced by others
Another of the major takeaways from the research in this area is that giving is fundamentally a social act. One study shows that people give significantly more to their university if the person calling and asking for their donation is their former roommate. Researchers found that when JustGiving donors see that the donor before them has made a large donation, they make a larger donation themselves.
It’s not just out friends and families who can influence us. Donors to an international development charity were more likely to respond to a match–funding campaign if they knew that that the match came from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation than if it came from an anonymous source. In our own research working with a large employer and Marie Curie, we have found that celebrity supporters increase donations to charity, and fast – but that this only appears to work for people who have donated to the charity before.
Giving is contagious
The good news is that charitable giving is contagious – seeing others give makes an individual more likely to give and gentle encouragement from a prominent person in your life can make also make a big difference to your donation decisions – more than quadrupling them in our recent study. Habit also plays a part – in three recent experiments those who volunteered before were more likely to donate their time than those who had not volunteered before.
In summary, behavioural science identifies a range of factors that influence our donations, and can help us to keep giving in the longer term. This is great news not just for charities, but also for donors. Researchhas revealed that spending money on others actually makes us happier than spending it on ourselves, and giving to others can actually make us healthier. So what are we waiting for?