- Published 27 Nov 2012
- Updated 10 Nov 2015
Giving What We Can, of which I am a member, is a group that is united by taking a pledge to donate 10% of one's income to seriously affect extreme poverty in the developing world. However, donating is still widely considered an individual affair, despite criticism(1).
So why would people want to join together and make their giving public? Because it turns out there is value in joining together and creating a community around a common cause. In this essay, I will explore the benefits that members of a community get from associating with a group, specifically focusing on Giving What We Can.
Writing in his book Politics, Aristotle noted that people are social animals. Since then, much evidence from social psychology has been marshaled to back him up. People have a tendency to form groups with common causes(2), and frequently adopt the group as part of their personal identity(3) even to the point of thinking like the group(4) and assuming the group thinks like them(5). The power of a group is considered so strong that joining has typically been categorized as a fundamental human need(3,6).
But people don't stop there. Those who associate with a group will also act to benefit their own group at an individual cost to themselves(7), typically developing an "in-group / out-group" bias in their thinking(8,9,10) and sometimes going as far as seeing groups with opposing missions as a direct threat(11). Many people even derive their self-identity from the values of their group, placing large amounts of value and emotional significance on group membership(12).
By forming a community, people can group together to accomplish goals that no individual could do on their own, and having a strong group identity is fundamental to doing a joint job well(13). Communities are what built Wikipedia and Linux, and each tries to create identity and norms. By joining Giving What We Can, members endorse the values of the organization and put on a public face to spread their message to others in a coordinated way that they wouldn't be able to alone.
Countless examples exist of people coming together with a common objective of doing something hard, yet rewarding, and groups are an excellent place to do that - to keep everyone on task and motivated. Perhaps the most famous example is Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in 1935 to create a group to support each other in staying sober. However, while AA hasn't yet been demonstrated effective or ineffective due to methodological flaws(14), another similar group demonstrates the ability of groups to curb behavior - Weight Watchers(15), a comprehensive diet plan that includes group support.
When people associate with a group, members of that group become the reference point for social comparison, and people continue to adopt in-group attitudes and beliefs as their own(16,17), especially when information comes from group members perceived to have expertise18 and especially when the group in question has positive values(19). Thus, getting someone to join a group with a strong identity of "my kind of people act this way" is one of the more effective ways to inspire behavioral change, and typically the justification for this change will come later(20,21).
Peer pressure can be dangerous - by falling into the wrong group identities, high school kids end up abusing drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and stand an increased chance of dropping out(22). However, peer pressure can also be beneficial - by falling into the right group identities, high school kids will be less likely to cheat(23).
Many members of Giving What We Can were already committed to giving large portions of their income to charity before joining. However, just by being in the group, one is more likely to keep giving, and stay giving longer than one otherwise would without access to such a community.
In a group with a defined level of contribution, members will feel a social pressure to exert this level of effort(24). I think, given the benefits of donating to effective non-profits to those in extreme poverty, it's uncontroversial to describe membership in Giving What We Can as "peer pressure for the common good". Assuming members want to stay committed to this cause, joining Giving What We Can is a great way to make use of this peer pressure effect to stay a giver.
Lastly, joining together in a group like Giving What We Can allows people to present a unified voice of advocacy and also gives them the encouragement needed to stay motivated. But Giving What We Can also allows people to share information and come to better decisions. Membership involves a commitment to find the best opportunity for helping alleviate extreme poverty and provides recommendations to help out.
However, extreme poverty is complex, and lots of new information and research comes out every day. It takes a lot to stay on top of it, and it would be difficult to expect any one person to do all of it on their own. Luckily, they don't have to. People can share research and other relevant information with a community and distribute the work, thus ensuring everyone stays on top of the latest trends.
Having a community publicly surround the cause of effective giving provides many benefits to those receiving the donation. However, a community can help those within the community as well:
- It can provide a public face for better understanding and advocacy,
- It can provide peer support to keep people motivated and engaged, and
- It can provide a place to network and share information
Hopefully, Giving What We Can and related "effective altruist" organizations will grow and more people interested in helping those in extreme poverty will join up, making us all stronger together.
(Note: Links are to PDF files.)
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21: Mcgarty, Craig, S. Alexander Haslam, Karen J. Hutchinson, John C. Turner. 1994. "The Effects of Salient Group Memberships on Persuasion." Small Group Research 25: 267-93.
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