Many people think it would be nicer if others were to give more to non-profit organisations, especially effective ones. However, it doesn't even occur to most of us that some people already give a large share of their salary to charity.

A public pledge to donate money, like the Giving What We Can pledge, 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 and do actually undertake. By making such a public pledge, we can inspire others to give.

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 encourage people to give we have to understand why they already do not do so. There are a number of reasons, but one of the most prevalent is what is called the bystander effect. Examples of groups failing to respond to disasters happening right in front of them have been widely observed, and the bystander effect is magnified when the disaster is global poverty a continent or two away. Because people around us are not giving, we come to believe that we have no responsibility to give either, and we sure wouldn't want to be suckered into contributing 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 persistant (1,2) and occasionally self-reinforcing belief(3,4). For instance, people think of monetary incentives as being the most effective for encouraging people to help others, such as by donating blood(5). The belief in the effectiveness of monetary incentives persists even when this turns out to not be the case(6). In a second example, we tend to greatly over-estimate the amount people will support a policy that favours them over others(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, to the belief that if other people aren't doing so, neither should we. However, the norm of self-interest is largely a myth.

Challenging the Self-Interest Norm

This means that the norm of self-interest has to be challenged, which should encourage people to revise their selfishness-based theory of human nature and consequently to engage in more selfless acts like charitable giving. If we are interested in getting people to donate more, we need to open people up to the idea that charitable giving can be expected, and that it 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). They end up unwilling to differ unless other people do so too. 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 put in a group and asked to look at a line and compare its length to three other lines on a second card. At the end they had to state which line matched the height of the first line. The task was enormously simple, but it was complicated by being in a group of several other people, all in on the experiment, all giving 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 the experiment, who would give the correct answer, the tendency to conform would drop dramatically, even though those giving the correct answer would still be in the minority. Take away the partner, even halfway through the experiment with the same subject, and conformity shoots back up.

However, giving people a way to escape conforming to the norm of self-interest can lead them to increase their charitable donations. In one field experiment, a radio station would mention to potential donors whenever a previous donor had donated $300. 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 exhibit challangeing behaviour. 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.

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 80,000 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 charity all the time - we should recognize when is the time and place, and not be unreasonable. At 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.