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What Motivates People To Give?


The Christmas season is a major time of year for charitable giving. Maybe you write a few checks or click and charge online. Or maybe you get asked to give directly at a shopping mall or at your front door. But the thing is, why do you give? And does the reason change depending on the situation? Here with some answers is Shankar Vedantam, NPR's social science correspondent. Welcome back.


CORNISH: So this is the time of year, as they say, when people are perceived as being more charitable. But is it all altruistic?

VEDANTAM: Well, when you ask people why they're generous, they will tell you that it is all about altruism, that they love a cause or they like to give. But scientists have increasingly sought to test these claims, Audie. I spoke with economist John List. He's at the University of Chicago. He's conducted a number of experiments into why people give. And he explained to me why he thinks this is important to do.

JOHN LIST: Any time you ask someone, why did you give to this charitable cause, the typical response is, I gave because I really want to help another person. But when you actually dig down deeper, that's not the true motive for why they gave. And that's exactly why we need field experiments to try to disentangle reasons why people give.

CORNISH: And I understand, Shankar, one of the reasons may be social pressure, right? And he does some experiments to try and make that case.

VEDANTAM: That's right. So List thinks that social pressure might be playing a very powerful role. And he asked me to think about a scenario that's going to be familiar to lots of us. Here he is again.

LIST: You're sitting on the couch watching a football game. And you hear somebody knocking on the door. And you think, OK, should I get up? Or should I stay watching the football game? Of course, a lot of people get up and answer the door. But once they see that there's a solicitor at the door, they say, oh, my God. I wish I would've stayed on the couch watching the football game.

CORNISH: (Laughter). Right, so basically, you feel like you've been put on the spot.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. And List realized that this scenario provides the perfect mechanism for an experiment that tries to find out how much social pressure plays a role in altruism. List sent volunteers into various Chicago neighborhoods to solicit money for a children's hospital. But there was a catch, Audie. Some households just got a cold call, a knock on the door. Others were alerted ahead of time that someone was going to be knocking on their door and asking for money. A third group was told that a knock was coming and given the choice to opt out. They could say they didn't want to be disturbed. Now, if people were giving only because of altruism, it shouldn't matter whether they know ahead of time that a knock is coming. But List finds that when households are alerted ahead of time, the number of people who answer that knock on the door, it falls by a quarter. When people are given the choice to opt out and say they don't want to be disturbed, donations fall by nearly half. And what List says this shows is how much social pressure shapes generosity.

LIST: What you find is that roughly three-quarters of the dollars given are due to social pressure. And a quarter of the dollars given is actually due to altruism.

VEDANTAM: Now, of course, Audie, we should mention that this was one experiment in one setting. There are lots of other reasons why people might want to give. People write checks in the privacy of their own homes where there's no social pressure. But in this kind of situation, and there are many like it - you know, you encounter somebody at the door of a store as you're leaving. Or maybe you're at church, and people are passing the collection plate. It's situations like that where social pressure probably plays an enormous role.

CORNISH: So the idea that you're basically uncomfortable saying no to someone's face, right?

VEDANTAM: Exactly. So in this experiment, you don't want the person at the door to think that you're a jerk for not wanting to help a children's hospital. The dilemma, Audie, is that for charities, putting people on the spot is effective. But it might be effective only in the short term because people don't like to be pressured. And they're going to find ways to dodge it. List, in fact, believes that charities need to focus on the 25 percent of people who are genuinely motivated by altruism because this is the group of people who are likely to be your long-term supporters.

CORNISH: So what are some of the other strategies that charities and others have found to get us to open our wallets?

VEDANTAM: You know, Audie, there are literally dozens of different things that people have tried. One of them is that when a charity sends you a gift - maybe they send you a calendar - the norm of reciprocity dictates that you send something back to them in exchange. Another idea is that if you can get people to donate their time to a cause, they're more likely to follow up with donations because people's wallets follow their feet.

CORNISH: So I'm feeling a little guilty now for my introduction, right? The norms of the holiday season, right? This is the time of year to give. Does that also create a form of social pressure?

VEDANTAM: You can think about social norms exactly as a larger example of social pressure at work. If you're at a workplace and everyone's writing checks to charities or doing things that are charitable, you feel kind of obliged to do the same.

CORNISH: Shankar, thanks so much for explaining it.

VEDANTAM: Thank you so much, Audie.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam. You can follow him on Twitter. His handle's @HiddenBrain. And you can follow this program @npratc. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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