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What Do People Think Is the Best Way to Give Charity?

New studies explore moral judgments about donors.

Victoria 1/Shutterstock
Source: Victoria 1/Shutterstock

Charitable giving is a central part of the human experience—and philosophers have long debated about which forms of charity are preferable to others.

The 12th-century Jewish sage Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, often called the Rambam by Jewish scholars) ranked different types of giving. At the top of his list was a gift that enabled the recipient to avoid the need for charity in the future (a variant of Lao Tzu’s maxim “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”).

Of particular interest in Rambam’s framework is whether a gift is made anonymously and whether the recipients are anonymous. He argued that the best gift-giving situations are those in which the donor does not know the recipient and the recipient does not know the donor. Next are cases in which the donor remains anonymous but knows who the recipient is, followed by those in which the recipient remains anonymous but knows the donor. Last are cases in which both parties are aware of the identities of the other.

As influential as this framework has been (particularly in religious circles), it isn’t obvious how other people would view these kinds of donations. A paper by Julian De Freitas, Peter DeScioli, Kyle Thomas, and Steven Pinker in the January 2019 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General explored this question.

In one study, participants were given examples of donations of each of these four types (varying whether the donor and recipient were aware of the others’ identity) and were asked to rate how charitable the donor was in each case as well as how likely that person was to donate again in the future. The general pattern in these studies is that these two judgments were similar—that is, thinking someone was more charitable was associated with thinking they would be likely to donate again.

The participants' moral judgments did not quite match the predictions from Rambam’s framework. As this framework assumes, the donor was judged most charitable when both parties were anonymous and second most charitable when the donor was anonymous but knew the identity of the recipient. This pattern makes sense, because we often think of charity as something a person does without deriving a public benefit, and anonymous donors don’t receive any adulation.

Unlike in Rambam’s ranking system, however, participants were less concerned about whether the recipient’s identity was known. Givers were actually judged least charitable when their identity was known but the donor's was not. These judgments were about the same (in some studies) or slightly lower (in others) than the case in which both parties knew each other’s identities. The idea here is that people question the motive of individuals who allow their identity to be known without caring who they are giving to. Indeed, another study suggests that one reason people believe donors might want to know the identity of the recipient is that they assume the donor might want to maintain a relationship with them in the future.

In one study, the researchers cleverly tried to estimate how much more donors who chose to reveal their identities had to give to be considered as charitable as those who remained anonymous. In this study, there was essentially no amount of money that observers thought a donor could give that would make up for them revealing their identity.

In light of this finding, the last study in the paper is particularly interesting. Participants were asked to take the perspective of someone who needed assistance from a benefactor. They were given the option to select a smaller gift from an anonymous donor or a larger gift from a donor whose identity was revealed.

While observers clearly favored donors who kept their identity a secret, recipients generally chose the larger amount from the person who revealed their identity rather than the smaller amount from the person who remained anonymous. That is—understandably—people in need of charity are unlikely to be so strongly swayed by the factors that bystanders use to make moral judgments.


De Freitas, J., DeScioli, P., Thomas, K. A., & Pinker, S. (2019). Maimonides’ ladder: States of mutual knowledge and the perception of charitability. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(1), 158-173.

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