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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.