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Why we give to charity

New research is uncovering a puzzle: Analytical thinking may be the enemy of generosity

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Every holiday season in America, as Thanksgiving fades and turkey sandwiches give way to Christmas trees and candy canes, Americans unleash an immense flow of charitable donations. For charities, it’s the busiest time of the year: Salvation Army bell ringers man their corners; workplace pledge drives abound.

The urge to give that is awakened around this time is an important one: Philanthropy plays a crucial role in American society, providing funding for a vast array of services. Giving also connects us as a culture: According to a study by the Giving USA Foundation and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, nearly two-thirds of all Americans gave to charity in 2008. American charities took in nearly $300 billion in 2010.


Underlying all those donations is a mystery: Why do we give at all? From a rational perspective, it’s hard to see why people worried about their own families, taxes, and bills would want to give money to help strangers. Though the tradition of giving to the less fortunate has existed for millennia — and though researchers have long been interested in what makes humans want to help others at their own expense — social scientists have only begun to seriously examine the act of donating money in the past 20 years.

The insights they’ve drawn have been helpful to fund-raisers, enabling them to craft better campaigns and tug at our heartstrings with greater precision. But for those of us just looking to donate, and donate well, the emerging research on charitable giving has yielded a difficult truth: Thinking harder about how to give makes us less likely to give at all.

This finding is concerning in light of the strong recent push to give more rationally —  for even small individual donors to scrutinize the inner workings of charities and make sure their money is being spent productively. Research by economists and psychologists suggests that the impulse to give does not square with thinking in such a calculating way. On the contrary, it appears that giving is driven by emotional motives, rooted in deep impulses, cognitive biases, and even our own selfish needs. (Charity research isn’t necessarily flattering to donors.) And when we think too analytically about giving, we can deflate our initial generous instinct.


“What we find is that when people are thinking more deliberatively . . . they end up being less generous overall,” said Deborah Small, an associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Is it possible to be both generous and smart about it? A lot of donors would like to think so, but new research suggests that it may be harder than we realize. And while there may be things we can do to make sure our money doesn’t end up wasted, charity appears to be one area where we have to be extra-careful not to let our brains get in the way.

Why anyone is ever selfless is a mystery that has fascinated, not to mention frustrated, scientists since Charles Darwin, who considered it a major problem for his theory of natural selection. If every creature on earth was in competition with every other, then how to explain bees sacrificing themselves for the good of the hive, or men and women running into burning buildings to save the lives of strangers? These questions have led researchers to posit that helping others, even when it costs us dearly, is simply part of being successful social animals: Despite our imperative to compete, we ultimately find it pays off to be generous.


Of course, it’s one thing to explain why people in general are inclined to help others, and another to examine how it plays out in the mind of an individual person. Studying charitable donation has been a valuable window into that process for researchers, because it allows them to quantify the amount of good a person is doing, and how much he or she is giving up.

One dominant strain of thought among charity researchers is that our donations aren’t chiefly driven by concern for others, or a principled sense of altruism — that instead, it’s largely a way for us to indulge the desire to feel virtuous and happy about our role in the world. This theory was formalized in 1989 by behavioral economist James Andreoni, who described the rush of self-satisfaction and sense of purpose one experiences after committing support to a worthy cause as “warm glow.” The reason we give money, Andreoni wrote, is that it makes us feel good — regardless of how much it benefits the people we’re ostensibly trying to help.

Another prominent theory to emerge from the research is that people give because of social pressure. We want to avoid appearing selfish or coldhearted, especially in front of people who are suffering or people whose opinions we care about. We might feel this type of pressure when we find ourselves passing a homeless person on the street, or when someone at the office asks if we’d like to participate in the companywide campaign for United Way.


Those aren’t the reasons we like to think of ourselves as donating, but experimental research on charity tends to support the notion that donating and thinking occupy separate realms. Jonathan Baron, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, asked a group of participants which charity they’d rather give to: one that achieved its goals so efficiently that it could spend 20 percent of its money on advertising, or one that required more money to do the same amount of good, and thus spent less on promotion. Though the first charity was technically more efficient, people tended to favor the latter: What mattered to them was seeing more of their own money at work, Baron concluded, rather than the amount of good it did.

This conclusion is bolstered by the findings of John List, an economist at the University of Chicago, who tested the effectiveness of so-called matching programs, in which a major supporter agrees to match the contributions of individual donors. List expected to find that matching programs enticed people to give, by creating the (correct) impression that their money would go further. But List’s results were curious: While charities that offered a matching program did inspire more people to give than charities that didn’t, he was surprised to find that a higher matching ratio didn’t lead to larger donations. People whose donations would be quadrupled — a huge increase in the power of their gift — didn’t donate any more money than people whose donations would simply be doubled. “People get utility or satisfaction out of giving to a good cause. And they do not care how much public good is provided,” List said.


The lesson Baron took from his own research is that would-be philanthropists need to be more thoughtful: “People don’t ask themselves enough, ‘What is this charity actually doing, and what good does it do, and how important is that good?’” Baron has revised his own giving strategy, so that instead of spreading a number of small gifts across 10 different charities, he now focuses it on a couple of organizations that he believes will do the most with his money.

Can more of us be like Baron, and harness our charitable impulses while making smarter decisions about where our money is going? The latest findings from psychology suggest it’s unlikely — that when it comes to giving, at least, the deliberative thinking that’s associated with making informed choices actually makes it less likely that a person will give at all.

Small, of the Wharton School, conducted an experiment with George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University and Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon showing that when people were given more facts and statistics about the problem a charity was trying to address, they actually became less likely to donate. The best approach for a charity raising money to feed hungry children in Mali, the team found, was to simply show potential donors a photograph of a starving child and tell them her name and age. Donors who were shown more contextual information about famine in Africa — the ones who were essentially given more to think about — were less likely to give. Small sees her findings as evidence of a kind of contest going on inside of each of us, one that pits our emotional side against our intellect in a battle for control over our behavior.

Small’s findings are backed up by Daniel Oppenheimer, a psychologist at Princeton and coeditor of the book “The Science of Giving,” who found that simply giving people information about a charity’s overhead costs makes them less likely to donate to it. This held true, remarkably, even if the information was positive and indicated and the charity was extremely efficient.

“When we start thinking about it, we might start analyzing it,” Small said. “Is this really going to be effective? Is this going to be the best use of my money? How else might I spend my money? What happens is you stop feeling.”

For humans, who distinguish themselves from beasts in part through their analytical powers, this is a troubling conflict. Why should thinking be the enemy of generosity? What does it mean that as soon as we enter the “deliberative mindset,” to use Small’s term, we become less altruistic towards our fellow man?

One reason analytical thinking might have this effect on the charitable impulse is that, once people really think through what the charity they’ve selected might accomplish with their money, they start realizing just how little their contribution is going to help. This is sometimes referred to as the “drop in the bucket” effect. According to List, thinking about all the people you’re not helping when you donate — the millions of children left to starve for each one you save — makes the act of giving a lot less satisfying. “If you really did the calculus,” List said, “my 25 dollars to the Sierra Club means nothing on the margins. So if I wanted to be really analytical about it, I’m not going to give.” According to List, that means that a world in which everyone thinks rationally about their charitable decisions might mean the most efficient, best organizations get the most money — but it might also be a world in which far less money actually gets donated.

To help donors give more rationally without getting too hung up in analysis, organizations such as GiveWell and Charity Navigator have set up websites that highlight good charities with simple rankings and “Top Ten” lists, rather than a complicated stream of financial information. “We do the analytics for you,” said Ken Berger, chief executive and president of Charity Navigator. (Small agrees that these can be a helpful way around the problem she identified — “a shortcut for donors so they don’t have to think too much.”)

For donors worried that even that much analysis might be overthinking, one solution might be to treat charity a different way — neither as an impulse nor a research project, but more as an appetite, one we can both indulge and control. Lise Vesterlund, an economist at the University of Pittsburgh, doesn’t share the dominant view of charity as being motivated primarily by people’s desire to attain prestige and feel good about themselves. Instead, she argues that existing research points to something she calls “the temptation to do good.” As she sees it, people are preprogrammed to help those who are suffering, and when we make an impulsive decision to give money to charities that don’t necessarily make the best use of it, we’re essentially indulging that temptation the way we’d indulge a sugar craving.

But appetites can be healthy, too, and Vesterlund’s solution is to be sure we indulge them the right way: essentially, putting carrots closer at hand than a chocolate bar. If you know that donating money to a food bank this holiday season is going to go further towards helping the poor than giving the same amount in quarters to panhandlers, then decide that’s how you’ll do it when the appetite strikes.

“We all know this time of year we’re getting tons of solicitations,” Vesterlund said. “If before going into the season you say, ‘I want to make substantial charitable donations, and these are the organizations I want to give to,’ you don’t fall prey to the temptations.”

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail lneyfakh@globe.com.