Charitable people just want to look good

A new academic study claims that one of the main reasons people give to charity is “image motivation”, i.e. they want to be seen by others as charitable people rather than any real altruistic motives.

The scholars behind the study were able to prove, through a series of tests, that gifts given anonymously tended to be smaller, while gifts that were publicized in a big way were larger. More interestingly, however, the study also showed that rewarding people for their generosity may actually be counterproductive. The results hold interesting ramifications for the world of philanthropy.

The behavioral economists behind the study – Dan Ariely, Anat Bracha and Stephan Meier – claim the results may also be used to judge people’s behaviour in other fields as varied as energy consumption and child care.

Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University and the author of ‘Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions’. As one of the three academics behind the study into image motivation, he explains the building blocks on which it was formed:

“Image motivation is the idea you are doing things to convince yourself of who you are. You are never really sure how good of a person you are. Therefore, you have to do things to convince yourself you are a better person. Not only do we do things to convince ourselves that we are good people, but we also want to convince others people we are good too.”

Economists normally think that self-interest governs most of our actions, however the idea that people do good in part because it puts them in a favorable light to those whose opinions they care about is something relatively new.

Click for Charity

To test the idea and importance of image motivation Ariely, Bracha and Meier conducted an experiment named ‘Click for Charity’. In it, subjects could donate to a charitable organization by clicking two keys on the keyboard. The charities (the American Red Cross or the National Rifle Association) were either associated with positive or negative image consequences. Since 92% of participants thought highly of the Red Cross, giving to it could reasonably be assumed to make people look good to their peers.

Participants were also randomly assigned to make their donation choices in a public or in a private setting, and were randomly assigned to receive, in addition to the donation made on their behalf, monetary incentives.

As Ariely explains: “We concentrated on two types of signals: clean signals – which is doing something for solely altruistic purposes, and mixed signals – doing something altruistically but also getting something in return for your good work.”

The results strongly support the notion that image motivation is important for what they termed ‘pro-social behaviour’. Also, they discovered that monetary incentives have no effect on the contribution effort when the contribution decision is made public, but monetary incentives do increase the contribution effort when the decision is private. Participants exerted much greater effort in the public case: the average number of clicks, at 900, was nearly double the average of 517 clicks in the private case.

“It’s like if you do a run for charity – you can convince yourself you are good person,” clarifies Ariely. “If I give you a dollar for every mile you’ll run longer and harder. However, if others are watching you then adding this dollar makes you less likely to run, you think others will assume you are just running for the money. This is because you value other people’s opinion so much.”

Lessons to be learned?

Charities can learn a lot from this study. They can actually change the way they operate to maximize the potential donations they receive. The trio has raised the possibility that cleverly designed rewards could actually draw out more generosity from people by exploiting the notion of image motivation.

“Some churches in the US now have lotteries for people attending mass. Sometimes you can win an SUV,” continues Ariely. “You wonder if an SUV is the right thing to give but they are mixing the signals. As a charity you want to give people something publicly, but you should give them something that is meaningless financially, a mug is a good idea from that perspective, it costs two dollars but it can be used a signal of the person’s goodness. You give them something symbolic but cheap – like a sticker, not a Cashmere sweater.”

Ariely also believes that the global recession is not a barrier to the success application of this information by charities:

“A lot of people don’t have much money to give these days, but that means the people who still have money can make much bigger impact. If your wealth has not changed in the financial crisis then your relative wealth is much higher these days. I think there are opportunities for charities here.”

However Ariely is quick to point out that this study and its results have far wider reaching implications. It’s not just charities that can learn from this human behaviour. The results can be used to affect the way people behave in other ways. Even to make people more environmental.

“How do we get people to save on energy?” He asks. “At the moment, for example, nobody knows what an individual’s heating bills are, what if we started making it public what people are spending on energy on a website or on a mailbox outside the house? That might change people’s behaviour. Image motivation is involved in a lot of things we do, whether it’s energy spending or how we treat our children. The more you reward people the more you can change their behaviour.”

Any such thing as true altruism?

One recent survey has found that nearly 90% of American households give to charity, and they do so for many different reasons, not least of which is tax breaks. This new study shows that when the main reward for giving is positive personal publicity, the potential for healthy donations is massive.

Donations to charitable organizations will certainly decrease during the Great Recession, but they haven't gone away entirely. Non-profits and other charities can benefit from knowing what really motivates consumers. For many, it's about advertising their values to the world, and projecting an image, without seeming to profit from their charitable giving.

This leaves but one philosophical question: Is there any such thing as true altruism? When we donate money are we only investing in a better public image for ourselves rather than giving for the sake of going something worthwhile?

“That is something we can never know,” says Ariely. “Real charity is supposed to be anonymous; we can think of different levels of altruism but is there anything such thing as true altruism? We just don’t know.”

Ciaran Walsh for RT