To Ask or Not to Ask: Experiments in Charitable Giving

Our recent podcast “What Makes a Donor Donate?” features economist John List, who has concentrated his research on the science of philanthropy. In short, when it comes to convincing people to give, some ways are better than others. But what about just directly asking them?

A new study from authors James Andreoni, Justin M. Rao, and Hannah Trachtman examines the way people behave when solicited for donations by bell-ringers from the Salvation Army Red Kettle Campaign. The authors designed an experiment where bell-ringers were sent to a grocery store in suburban Boston, and positioned at either one or both of the store’s entrances. They would either ring their bell and remain silent, or ring their bell and directly ask people for a donation. Through the difference in these two styles, the authors discovered a strange contradiction in people’s behavior: while grocery store patrons almost never avoided the non-verbal bell-ringers, up to one-third of all patrons did avoid the verbal bell-ringers. However, directly asking people to give increased average donations by 75 percent:

We find first, shoppers do little to avoid the bell ringers who do not verbally engage or make eye contact with them and only a tiny fraction appear to seek the solicitor by walking a few paces in order to give. In contrast, the simple act of looking at shoppers and saying “please give today” causes over 30 percent of shoppers to avoid the ask, but increases average donations per giver by 75 percent. Asking, it seems, is both aversive and effective.

Their attempt to explain this paradox includes some analogies about empathy:

The main psychological feature implicated here is empathy. Just as the smell of freshly baked bread can make it hard for a dieter to resist eating, stimulating one’s empathy through a direct and vocal ask can create a temptation to be generous that is difficult for humans to resist.

The authors portray their findings as separate from inequity aversion explanations, and call for further examination of the psychological and social reasons behind charitable giving:

…we argue that our results show that human altruism is driven by many proximate social cues and psychological factors that have, thus far, been largely unexplored by economists but are the likely drivers of the rather extreme behavior observed in our field study.


Mike B

It's not at all driven by empathy, but the fear of social punishment (even just the bell ringer judging them) by refusing to give. That is why people avoid the ringers who are aggressive about asking, they don't really want to give, they don't feel any empathy at all for the cause, but they don't want the stick of judgement by refusing. I think we should call this what it is...extortion.


There is a well publicised recent result in autism research that says nonautistic people will donate more if it makes them look good. Obviously the first resort would be using hot women but they rarely come cheap. 'Empathy' in nonautistic people is an extremely vulnerable area for manipulation, as any psychopath knows.

Social punishment is the same thing as 'empathy' in the literature. Status within the local group is literally everything.

Mike B

The literature has taken a huge wrong turn if it thinks social punishment is a form empathy. When I give because I feel empathy for someone it makes me feel good. When I give to avoid social punishment it makes me feel taken advantage of. When I tell someone trying to extort money from me what they can do to themselves it actually makes me feel good again.


Unfortunately, I suspect panhandlers would be unsurprised to hear this result.

Steve McCann

See this:


I do not think this is an accurate study. And this needs to be elaborated a bit more.

A shopper has a choice to give or not to give money when a salvation army volunteer just rings the bell and not ask directly. When asked for donation, It is very difficult to refuse, you one ends up putting some money in the bucket without someone else judging them.

Try this same tactic in a country like India, I am fairly confident it will not work. Charity is not such an open or a celebrated concept as in here. If one feels being charitable he gives, if not he says no and goes ahead. Where as such a behavior will be scorned upon here in the US.

I know I am not able to put forward my views in the most diligent manner. But to assume this situation is Black and White and infer results from a same is an opaque view of world.


Were the bell ringers dressed like Santa? Did shoppers with children stop and give more often or more genderously?

Awful hard to ignore Santa directly asking you and your 5 year old...

If they weren't....I'd say the looks of the bell ringers would have to be factored in, as someone says above. Sometimes those guys look like street thugs. I'm not diggining my wallet out there.


They look like thugs because they are people who have not been living the sweet upper middle class life in McMansions, but are in fact people who have been given a hand up off the street by, yes, the Salvation Army. Sorry if their looks offend you and there aren't any hot women bell ringers to pull your chain.

Would it KILL all of you to put a folded up dollar into the kettle? Could you just do that, part with a dollar or two?


Your post makes me *not* want to donate to Salvation Army.

ted sudol

the study by Andreoni, et al. actually may be less of a surprise than one one think at first. it's time-tested true that a top reason for not giving is not being asked - and, here the act of asking results in greater giving albeit by fewer donors. the scenario likely plays a role in the outcome of the test. the act of placing a small amount in a red kettle at the holidays as one is leaving a store after spending large amounts on gifts may not be something that represents a bona fide act of philanthropy - but, an act in the same situation in response to a direct request to give provides an opportunity for philanthropically inclined individuals to consider the moment and make a more substantive gift as an affirmative philanthropic decision. the application of this study in other philanthropic settings would be interesting, indeed.