When the Goal of Generosity Looms Larger

Why are people more generous at the end of a charitable campaign?

Posted Dec 19, 2013

Since at least the 1930s, psychologists have documented that animals (such as rats) run faster as they get closer to their food reward. The same generally applies to to humans; as we get closer to our goal—whatever it is—we tend to pursue that goal with greater vigor.

Most of the research on this topic has focused on individuals pursuing egocentric goals, such as obtaining food or money for oneself. What about more generous, other-focused goals? Is giving $100 to your public radio station on the last day of their pledge drive different from giving $100 to the same station on the first day of the pledge drive? Logically speaking, it shouldn’t make a difference; a dollar has the same value whether it’s donated early or late. But psychologically speaking, people do seem to perceive a real difference. In a set of recent studies, psychologists Cynthia Cryder, George Loewenstein, and Howard Seltman used several different different methods to demonstrate that people are more likely to make a donation (although not more likely to give a bigger donation) as the charitable campaign nears its goal. They also provided evidence for at least one explanation for why this phenomenon might occur. Here is what they did.

In one study, the researchers partnered with an international disaster relief charity. The charity provided the names and addresses of “lapsed donors” (those who had donated in the past, but not in the past year). The researchers mailed each of these potential donors one of several possible versions of the pitch. In one version, the charity was said to have raised 10% of the necessary funds. In another version, the charity was said to be 66% of the way toward the goal. In the final version, it was 85% toward the goal.

The results indicated that a significantly higher percentage of people responded with a donation in the 85% condition than in the other two conditions (which did not differ from each other). In fact, the donation rate from those who received the 85% mailing was double that of those in the other two conditions.

In another study, participants read about a girl who needed to sell 100 candy bars for a fundraiser. Half were told she needed to sell two more candy bars to meet her quota; the other half were told she needed to sell 32 more. In addition, all participants were told that the girl was 100% likely to make her quota. (This was included to address the possibility that people only give to charities that have a high probability of meeting their goals.) The results indicated that participants were significantly more likely to say they would buy some candy from her in the “2 more” condition than in the “32 more” condition. In addition, participants in the “2 more” condition reported that their help would have more impact and be more personally satisfying. Interestingly, there was no difference between any of the conditions in the per capita average amount donated; the manipulation of percentages only influenced the likelihood of making a donation at all. Thus, progress information did not cause givers to give more as much as it caused some percentage of the non-givers to become givers.

So why exactly does this occur? These data suggest that people derive the most satisfaction from having a significant personal impact on the outcome. This is an old idea in psychology, going back at least to Groos’ (1901) description of infants’ play as “joy in being a cause” and White’s 1959 concept of “effectance”. We are wired to find actions more rewarding than inactions —even in cases when, at least on the surface, we are being harmed. (After all, a charitable donor’s wallet is now lighter.) Rarely, if ever, has this concept been applied to understand prosocial behavior. Increasing evidence indicates that giving to charity increases happiness (Dunn, Aknin, & Norton, 2008). These data suggest why that might be the case: Giving to charity allows us to be “a cause.”


Cryder, C.E, Loewenstein, G., & Seltman, H. (2013). Goal gradient in helping behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 1078-1083.

Dunn, E. W., *Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319, 1687-1688.

White, R.W. (1959). Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence. Psychological Review, 66, 297-333.

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