Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Strut your altruistic stuff

June 30th, 2011

Big Show OffSo, I gave a lot of money to charity recently. And I helped eleven people, and I signed more petitions than anyone you know, and I protested several bad, bad things that won’t happen now.

Are you impressed yet?

Okay, I also gave five litres of blood and opened my home to a family of destitute manatees. And, um, hand-delivered vaccines to the African jungle. (By hand. To the jungle.)

You people don’t impress easily, do you?

Fine. I also donated both my kidneys to strangers—

—and let’s stop while I still have most of the organs I started with.

The idea of bragging about generosity sounds silly to me (obviously) but buried in there is a useful concept: studies have shown that people will do good things for the purpose of being seen to do them.

A clever study recently tested this idea. Jennifer Jacquet and her colleagues asked volunteers to play a “public goods” game in which they were given a sum of money and asked to decide privately whether to contribute to a group pool (whose proceeds were doubled then shared among all the players) or keep their money while benefiting from the generosity of other players. (For more about how this kind of game works, see this post.) The twist was that after playing 10 rounds, the researcher would announce the names of the two most generous (or, in another group, the two least generous) participants.

Jacquet’s team expected to find that the prospect of being shamed for selfishness would make all the players more generous, and it did. What surprised them was that the prospect of being honoured for unselfishness had the same effect: players gave about 50% more to the group pool when there was the possibility of being publicly commended for it.

Psychologists think that one reason behind this kind of behaviour is that conspicuous altruism indicates an individual’s status in a group. For example, a shopping study found that when university students had recently been thinking about social status, they were more likely to choose a “green” product over a more luxurious or less expensive non-green product — but only when their purchase would take place in public.

Visible altruism might also be a mating signal: one study found that men contributed more to charity when in the presence of a woman then when alone or in the presence of another man.

Named Bricks at Heritage CenterWhatever the reason, you can see how this phenomenon can be used. People already give to charities in return for their names on a concert program, a bench or a brick. Can you honour your volunteers more visibly? Provide a public show of respect to those who’ve helped you or donated to your cause? Offer seals of approval to encourage companies to do more? Give your kid a gold star?

Because you know, if you make enough of a fuss over me, I will hand-deliver those vaccines. I wouldn’t hold my breath for the kidneys, though.

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