Why does it feel good to do good?

23rd June, 2022

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner,” wrote Adam Smith, famously, in The Wealth of Nations, “but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love.”

True enough. And yet my recent experience is that there is much to be said for addressing ourselves not to people’s self-love but to their humanity. I recently posted a Twitter thread telling people what was on my mind. I explained that my father Adrian had died. I posted photographs and described his life: his curiosity, his intelligence, his shy modesty. I told how my father had devoted himself to the care of my dying mother in the 1990s, and had somehow held down his job, kept his children attending school and made sure there was food on the table. And I described the sensitive care my father and mother had both received at the Florence Nightingale hospice in Aylesbury. And, finally, I asked people to consider giving money to the hospice.

People are kind, so I wasn’t surprised to get a warm response. What I did not expect was to receive anonymous donations of three or even four figures. It seemed a lot of money to give incognito to a local charity in a place you might never visit, in memory of a man you probably never met.

Economists have a number of theories to explain why anyone gives to a charitable cause. The most cynical — true sometimes, clearly false in this case — is that people are ostentatiously demonstrating their generosity and their riches.

At the other end of the spectrum is “pure altruism”. Just as rational consumers maximise their gains as savvy shoppers, picking up the best products at the cheapest possible price, pure altruists also seek the biggest impact for their spending. The difference is merely that pure altruists are aiming to maximise the utility of other people. That doesn’t quite seem to cover it either. There is a community of “effective altruists” out there, but they tend to prefer hard evidence, not memorial threads on Twitter.

The economists Dean Karlan and Daniel Wood have shown there is a tension between evidence and emotion. They tested out fundraising mailshots with a tear-jerking story about a named beneficiary: “She’s known nothing but abject poverty her entire life.” Others got the same emotive tale alongside a paragraph attesting to the “rigorous scientific methodologies” that demonstrated the charity’s impact. Karlan and Wood found that some people who’d previously given big donations came back and gave even more, impressed by the evidence of effectiveness. But smaller donors gave less. Apparently, the scientific evidence turned them off.

Perhaps they were giving because of what the economist James Andreoni calls the “warm glow”, and John List, another economist, terms “impure altruism”. Warm-glow giving is motivated by altruism of a fuzzier kind. Rather than calculating the most effective target for our donations, instead we give because it feels good to believe we’re doing good.

Because warm-glow giving is emotional rather than rational, it raises the question of how to persuade people to get themselves in the mood to donate. Nobody was better at this game than Charles Sumner Ward, who in the late 19th and early 20th centuries went on a hot streak raising money for the YMCA, the Boy Scouts, Masonic Temples and other employers of his formidable talents.

Ward deployed tactics that now seem very modern, including artificial deadlines, large donors who pledged funds only if they were matched by smaller donations, publicity stunts, a campaign clock showing progress towards an often-arbitrary goal and little wearable flags that donors could display. Some of these ideas are now proven to increase donations, but social scientists continue to ask what makes people give.

Cynthia Cryder and George Loewenstein have found that tangibility matters. People give more generously if they have first been asked to pick a charity from a list than if they’re shown the list and asked first to choose a donation amount, then to pick the charity to receive that donation. They also donate more if given specific examples of projects the charity does, rather than a more generic description. Being able to clearly picture how the money would be spent induced people to open their wallets.

Perhaps this explains why people were so generous. I was very specific about my father’s life, my parents’ deaths and the way this particular hospice had helped them. Rather than donating to an abstract ideal, people were giving money to something they could picture clearly.

Dean Karlan prompted me to consider one other thing: that people who regularly read my column or listen to my podcast have a relationship with me, and my thread on Twitter created an opportunity for them to mark that relationship with compassion and generosity.

Whatever the reason, I am grateful. And if this column prompts a warm glow, indulge yourself. Find a charity that means something to you, and give something in memory of someone who mattered to you. The altruism may be “impure”, but to do good feels good.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 27 May 2022.

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