How can people be persuaded to give more, and more effectively?

Research and prose by Michael Davis, Angus Smith and Denise Melchin

Encouraging people to give to charity is often based on appeals to emotion. Encouraging people to give to the most effective charities, however, involves appealing to their reason. Do these facts necessarily clash? Does the effective altruism movement face an uphill struggle against people’s intuitions, gut feelings and personal experiences?

Our findings investigate the ways in which giving with your head can appeal to the heart. A number of simple, intuitive, persuasion techniques can dramatically alter an individual’s ability to understand, and really internalise, their potential to do good.

Crunching Numbers

‘Giving ten per cent of your income’ is a scary thought, until you actually think about it. So, when persuading someone to take the Giving What We Can pledge, giving someone the space to think it over can be a surprisingly useful tool. A 2011 paper by economist Anna Breman showed that when regular donors were encouraged to increase their donations, the mean increase in monthly donations was 32% higher among people asked to do so after two months, than those who were asked to do so immediately. In a second experiment this figure stood at 11% So, when inviting someone to take the pledge, consider asking for a commitment first, and allowing them space to adjust to the idea before actually starting payments.

Another way of framing the ten per cent donation in a more appealing way is through suggesting that the donations be made frequently, and in smaller amounts. A study by Strahilevitz in 2010 showed that ‘the relative appeal of giving to charity rather than having those resources for oneself is greater for small amounts than for large amounts.’ Have you ever been reminded of how much you could give to charity if you simply cut down on the lattés? This is the ‘little-but-often’ model at work: when people see a donation as a series of small sacrifices, they are much more likely to appreciate its overall good.

This brings us on to a fundamental problem with fundraising for effective altruism: people struggle with conceptualising large numbers. When Kurt Tucholsky (not Stalin, who was hardly an insightful man) said that one death is a tragedy, and thousands is a statistic, he was alluding to a truth that social psychologists have recently come to elucidate. Take a recent series of studies by Västfjäll et al. (2014) which found that as more children were introduced in different charity appeals, activity in the Zygomaticus Major muscles decreased. Activity in these muscles is typically associated with compassion and the anticipated ‘warm glow’ of giving. As more victims of poverty were introduced, then, people’s empathy towards them decreased. Västfjäll, understandably annoyed, organised a second study in which these children were grouped into ‘entities,’ such as families. He found that eight related children elicited more empathy, and donations, than eight unrelated children. So, when talking about the lives that one can save through effective giving, stress that these are not simply abstract third-worlders, who exist as nothing more than statistics, but real people who relate to one another.

‘It’s not that I dislike people but I’m a great animal lover…’

There are, however, some heavily ingrained biases in people’s altruistic behaviour which can take real effort to break. Today’s society is saturated with different charitable appeals, and interview data suggests that donors use a variety of heuristic, experience-based rules of thumb to cope with the complexity. A study in 2014 pulled up such responses as, ‘I very rarely look at a new charity,’ ‘I’m not adding to my list,’ or ‘I have a box…all the [charity leaflets] go in and every month I donate to two of them.’ In persuading someone to give effectively, we have a responsibility to help people see through the complexity of charity and explain clearly and concisely why organisations like the Against Malaria Foundation deserve our support.

Arguably more damaging is the idea that there is a limit to how much good one can really be expected to do. Having done one’s ‘good deed for the day,’ people can get defensive, even offended, about being asked to do more. It falls to us, then, to remind people of their potential to save lives, resisting the temptation to rest on one’s laurels and focus on future aims rather than past virtues. Indeed, one study has shown that people primed to think of themselves as virtuous behave less altruistically than those primed to think of themselves in a negative light. Without going so far as to advocate a wholesale campaign against people’s self-esteem, it can be useful to shift the emphasis of a discussion away from someone’s previous acts of generosity and towards what should be done in the future.

Persuasion Techniques

More generally, there are a number of things to keep in mind, whatever the nature of your appeal, for encouraging people to give more. We have already gone over a number of barriers towards attitude change that many perfectly well-intentioned people can experience. In persuasion, it is always better, and indeed, more sympathetic, to yield to some of these truisms rather than attack them outright. Cialdini, Green and Rusch found that students interviewed about exam reform at their university were more receptive, even to specious arguments, when the interviewer yielded to some of the subjects’ arguments rather than resisting them.

Suppose, however, that you are in a position of responsibility for delivering a presentation on altruism to a large group of people. A different, very easily applicable technique is not to immediately tell the prospective donors what your aim is. Begin with a brief discussion centring on the precise goals that Giving What We Can and other effective altruism movements seek to tackle. Go into some detail about the nature of different interventions and encourage people to think in a logical way by guiding them through how poverty alleviation works in practice. One study showed that people prepared to engage their minds by memorising long sequences of letters were much more likely to donate to a charitable appeal which focussed on the plight of multiple children as opposed to just one, than those asked to memorise just two letters.

We have outlined a number of problems, and, hopefully, a number of solutions, to the question of how to encourage people to break their implicit assumptions about charity, and to give with their heads as much as their hearts. The mental blocks that keep people from giving effectively are often long-ingrained beliefs that, while firm, can be brittle. If you can really get someone to engage their brains by discussing charity in an intelligent way, you may be surprised how quickly attitudes change.

It’s an unfortunate quirk of the human mind that it struggles to conceive of large numbers in a meaningful way, and this is an obstacle that Giving What We Can must overcome in order to press home points about effective giving. The scale of what we can accomplish can, both for better and for worse, be unimaginable.


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