What's Next: A Do-Not-Knock Registry?

John List, one of the heroes of SuperFreakonomics, is a master of clever field experiments concerning fairness and altruism. He is particularly adept at imbuing experiments, whether in the field or the lab, with real-world wrinkles that make the results more believable.

He has already done some noteworthy work on door-to-door charitable solicitations. Now he’s written a new working paper (pdf here; abstract here) along with Stefano DellaVigna and Ulrike Malmendier (we’ve featured their work before as well), whose real-world wrinkle is as clever as it gets: distributing a flyer that tells a potential donor the date and time that a solicitor will be visiting, thereby giving donors the opportunity to be out of the house or simply to not answer the door. This enables the researchers to measure the degree to which altruism is affected by social pressure (to say nothing of tax breaks).

So what happens?

As List, DellaVigna, and Malmendier write:

We find that the flyer reduces the share of households opening the door by 10 to 25 percent and, if the flyer allows checking a “Do Not Disturb” box, reduces giving by 30 percent. The latter decrease is concentrated among donations smaller than $10. These findings suggest that social pressure is an important determinant of door-to-door giving. Combining data from this and a complementary field experiment, we structurally estimate the model. The estimated social pressure cost of saying no to a solicitor is $3.5 for an in-state charity and $1.4 for an out-of-state charity. Our welfare calculations suggest that our door-to-door fund-raising campaigns on average lower utility of the potential donors.

John List had better be careful. His research is very valuable to the philanthropic community; but if this latest paper engenders a public outcry for a “do-not-knock” registry, he might quickly become a pariah.

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  1. Mike B says:

    My mom always taught me to simply not open the door for solicitors. Of course the best excuse that will diffuse ANY and ALL social pressure to give is to inform the person that you give through the mail.

    Giving through the mail is often just plain smarter because many door to door charity solicitors are simply scam artists. If you ever give cash to a solicitor at your door you have to assume that the money is going right into their pocket.

    So the mail excuse no only makes you not look like a scrooge, but also makes you look more savvy.

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  2. David Jones says:

    The door-to-door issue can be confronted in a way that cold-calling cannot: a sign reading “Trespassers will be shot”.

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  3. Mike says:

    David, you have to watch out with those signs. They show intent. It’s best never to announce that you intend to enforce the castle laws.

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  4. HW says:

    I’ve never understood why it’s so hard for some people to just say “no.” You’ll never see that solicitor again. Are you really that desperate for a stranger’s approval?

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  5. Caliphilosopher says:

    What is needed is a follow up (or a wrinkle in the study) to see if those who checked the Do Not Disturb box gave to a charity in another fashion.

    The data may be explained by people just not wanting to meet someone at their door but yet are still charitable. Much more research is needed.

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  6. Sonja Coryat says:

    Mainly I get religious fanatics coming to my door, at least one visit a week. I call them fanatics because who else but a religiously obsessed person would dare knock on my door and end up telling me that I will burn in hell unless I believe the way they do. How come they can go door-to-door all over the U.S. and get away with it? What if I went to their door and told them I wanted them to stop going to church. Would this be considered outrageous, or what? Of course it would. No non-believer would do that. Yet we continue to tolerate this offensive intrusion from religious fanatics. Why is this permitted, anyway.

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  7. Gary says:

    #2 – no one will seriously consider a sign that says “Tresspassers will be shot”, in that the costs to you to shoot someone are extremely high (prison time), unless the trespasser is an immediate danger to you or your family. Only a very few states give you much leeway in this.

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  8. Boldizar says:

    Put another way, this is a measure of social cowardice.

    I decided long ago that if I were going to decline to give money to a homeless beggar, for instance, I should have the spine to look him in the eyes and say, “no.” It still makes me uncomfortable, and I still insist on making eye contact. The weird social “norm” of pretending these people are invisible is weak in terms of honour and personal dignity. I give money occasionally, decline frequently, but at least the beggar and I have a human interaction in the process.

    The same thing applies to a charity, though there the risk of an invisible class is smaller. But there is something repulsive about the “savvy” solution of Mike B (hiding and lying), above, that reflects a lot of what is wrong with our society.


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