It’s good to be good: several studies have demonstrated a positive relationship between altruism and health benefits (e.g. Brown, Consedine & Magai, 2005; Post, 2005; Schwartz et al., 2003).

This is, of course, in addition to the societal - and ethical - advantages of being philanthropic. But how can governments, companies, and charities help persuade people to be more altruistic?

Here is a selection of six behavioural science principles which can help to nudge people into charitable giving.

1) Concreteness

Starting in 2008, Pampers collaborated with UNICEF to contribute a portion of their proceeds towards vaccines for neonatal tetanus in developing countries. In some markets, the packs carried the copy, “One pack will help eradicate new-born tetanus globally”.

However, a slogan used in other markets proved more effective: “1 Pack = 1 Vaccine”.

The emotional brain is quicker and more influential than the rational brain, which is, in evolutionary terms, relatively new and underdeveloped. For example, images are processed quicker and more effectively than words (e.g. Levie and Lentz, 1982). For this reason, messages have a greater impact when they are simple and concrete.

For instance, a study of around 6,000 direct mail recipients found that 19% more people donated when absolute frequencies were used when talking about the appeal, rather than percentages (which are processed in a more abstract way; Brase, 2008).

Likewise, the identifiable victim effect posits that people are more generous when a single person is identified as the beneficiary of an appeal, rather than a group. One study found that, holding all else about an appeal equal, using a picture of a group of children lead to significantly fewer donations than a picture of a single child (Kogut & Ritov, 2007)

As Marilyn Manson (or perhaps someone before him) once said, “The death of one is tragedy, the death of millions is just a statistic.”

2) Emotion

For the same reason, emotional messages have a greater impact than rational ones on charitable giving. In addition, emotions, such as sympathy, are believed to be the motivating force behind altruistic behaviour (Kogut & Ritov, 2007).

In one study (Hsee & Rottenstreich, 2004), subjects were asked to make a donation to a wildlife charity; the solicitation letter included either pictures of pandas, or the equivalent number of dots. Pictures of pandas increased donations relative to simple dots, because of the former’s comparative emotional valence.

Likewise, charitable appeals are more effective when a person is shown with a negative facial expression, rather than a happy one or a neutral one (Small & Verrochi, 2009); and donation amount has been found to correlate positively with how upsetting a person’s suffering is shown to be (Batson, 1990).

In fact, there is research to suggest that engaging the rational brain at all can make people mean and miserly. For example, having people simply perform math calculations causes them to be less generous in donating (Small et al., 2007); and priming people with money (e.g. via incidental exposure to Monopoly) makes them less likely to help a stranger (Vohs et al., 2006).

3) Birds of a Feather

Despite our lofty ambitions - like the UN and the ISS - humans remain tribal animals, who are attracted to people who are similar and familiar. For instance, one study asked subjects to rank 100 people they knew in terms of how closely related they were to them, and then asked how they would split a given sum of money between these 100 people - the amount given correlated positively with relatedness (Jones & Rachlin, 2006).

In terms of altruism, this, of course, means that we are more likely to give to somebody with whom we feel a kinship. One paper (Kogut & Ritov, 2007) discovered that donations to survivors of the Asian tsunami were significantly higher when the appeal used a victim of the same nationality as the donor.

4) Priming

Charitable behaviour can be promoted through incidental exposure to altruism cues. For example, infants are 40% more likely to spontaneously help an adult pick up the sticks they have “dropped” if the infants have been primed with pictures of dolls hugging, rather than sitting back-to-back (Over & Carpenter, 2009).

In the world of charitable giving, priming people with words relating to religion or God causes them to be more charitable, regardless of their beliefs (Pichon et al., 2007; Shariff & Norenzayan, 2007); and priming people to think of superheroes causes them to donate over twice as much time to a charity compared to controls (Nelson & Norton, 2005).

5) Social Proof

Social proof is a non-conscious heuristic whereby one is influenced to behave a certain way because “if everyone else is doing it, it must be good” (Cialdini, 1999). This is why people are 10-20% more likely to buy a product online if it comes with a consumer recommendation (De Vries & Pruyn, 2007).

A study of a transparent donation box in an art gallery found that people contributed more when a greater quantity of previously donated money was observed in the box; and when this money was composed of $50 notes, rather than 50c coins, people tended to donate higher amounts (Martin & Randal, 2009). Another study found that if participants were more likely to donate if they had read a list of the names of previous donors (Okunade & Berl, 1997).

6) Commitment and Consistency

Finally, the non-conscious heuristic commitment and consistency holds that one is more likely to behave a certain way if it is consistent with their prior beliefs or behaviours (Cialdini, 1999). For instance, one paper administered a test and manipulated the results that people received; those who were told they were “above average citizens” were consequently more likely to vote (Tybout & Yalch, 1980).

In terms of charity, a relevant principle is the “foot in the door technique”, where people are more likely to agree to a request (such as a donation) if they have previously agreed to a smaller, related request. For example, in one study, people were more inclined to agree to host a sign on their lawn for a particular charitable cause if they had previously agreed to take a small bumper sticker for it (Freedman & Fraser, 1966). In fact, simply having people agree to a series of unrelated questions makes them significantly more likely to agree to a subsequent request for donation (i.e. “Yes, yes, yes”; Pandelaere et al., 2010).

So, while brands may be using naughty nudges to get people to buy things they don’t need, one can at least take some solace in the fact that charities and governments can use nice nudges to increase charitable behaviour!

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