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Beauty, not need, often sways charitable givers

Liang Liang (right) played with her 1-year-old female giant panda cub Nuan Nuan at a Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, zoo in August. MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images/File

The gentle giant panda is the king of wildlife charitable contributions, far outstripping less photogenic but needier creatures such as the pygmy sloth and penguin. A British naturalist once offered to “eat the last panda” if only it would free up funding for less photogenic species.

Despite knowing they should donate to the neediest cause, donors time and again opt for the most beautiful recipients, according to a study. This includes not only animals, but children: A cuter child, even when recognized to be less needy than other children, will be chosen to be sponsored more often.

“People say, and believe, that neediness is the most important thing, but their actual choice is often getting swayed by something else,” says study coauthor Cynthia Cryder, an associate professor of marketing at Washington University in St. Louis Olin Business School. “As long as people are deciding fairly intuitively, the beautiful recipient gets chosen again and again.”

The silver lining of the findings, published in the Journal of Marketing Research, was that instead of donating out of a sense of guilt, donors contributing to “beautiful” causes felt strong satisfaction and were therefore more likely to continue to donate over time.


Across a series of eight online and in-person studies, Cryder and colleagues found that when a set of charity recipients included a “beautiful” choice — say, a giraffe or an especially cute kid — the beautiful recipient was the most popular. Donors who picked the beautiful choice also reported being happier with their donation.

But this “beauty” effect dissipated when donors were asked to carefully think about their decision; when the choice was thoughtful and thorough, rather than intuitive, people chose the needier recipient. When asked explicitly, donors stated that they “want” to give to beautiful recipients but “should” give to the needier ones, such as a child with a strong cleft palate or a less glamorous animal, like the severely endangered orangutan.


This effect has implications for donors and for charities trying to encourage donations. “People do find extremely real satisfaction and happiness from giving” to beautiful causes, says Cryder. And emotionally satisfying donations are more likely to be sustained over the long term, she notes.

Still, some charities can thrive by focusing on the neediest recipients, especially during the month of December, when the bulk of donors are giving for tax reasons and may be more deliberate and thoughtful about where they donate.

And for charitable souls choosing between the panda or the sloth, it offers a hint: Take a minute to deliberate over who needs your dollars most. With a little intent, we can prevent our pocketbook decisions from being skin-deep.

Megan Scudellari is a science reporter based in Needham. Follow her on Twitter @Scudellari.