Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Time is money, except when it isn’t

November 22nd, 2010

Think about your favourite cause. Let’s say you have an opportunity to volunteer your time for that cause. How many hours would you be likely to volunteer?

Now let’s say you have the chance to donate some money to that cause. How much would you donate?

These aren’t complicated questions and they don’t yield complicated answers. What’s interesting about them is that just asking the first question influences the answer to the second.

Time is MoneyThis was discovered through a group of experiments published by Wendy Liu and Jennifer Aaker in 2008. After reading some basic information about the American Lung Cancer Foundation, individuals were asked how much they would donate to the Foundation. Half the questionnaires also asked, “How much time would you like to donate to the American Lung Cancer Foundation?” immediately before they asked about donating money.

The results are startling. People who filled out the questionnaire without the extra question pledged to donate an average of $24.46. Those who were also asked whether they would like to donate their time pledged to give an average of $36.44 – almost 50% more.

Liu and Aaker wondered whether this happened because those who chose not to volunteer their time felt guilty about it and therefore donated more money. However, they found that those who offered more volunteer hours also donated more money, so guilt didn’t fit as an explanation.

A second experiment looked at whether the order of the two questions made any difference. It turned out to make a huge difference: putting the money question first actually decreased the amount people were willing to give, while putting the time question first increased it. In addition, many more people volunteered their time if the time question was asked first. Liu and Aaker have replicated these studies with various types of charities and seen the same result.

Liu and Aaker theorize that the reason for this effect is that the concepts of “time” and “money” stimulate different ways of thinking:

“Thinking about spending time leads to an emotional mind-set in which giving to charity is seen as a means toward emotional well-being and happiness, whereas thinking about spending money leads to a value-maximizing mind-set in which the link between happiness and giving is less accessible.”

Other studies have found other ways in which we think about time and money differently. One experiment asked adults to unscramble a set of sentences then asked them what they planned to do during the next 24 hours. People who had been presented with scrambled sentences containing time-related words (like “day” or “clock”) planned to spend more time socializing, while those who had unscrambled sentences containing money-related words (like “wealth” or “dollar”) planned to spend more time working.

Another study discovered that people were more willing to stop and buy lemonade (and to spend more for the lemonade) when the lemonade stand had a sign saying “Spend a little time, and enjoy C & D’s lemonade” than when the sign said, “Spend a little money, and enjoy C & D’s lemonade.” They liked the lemonade more, too. Through this and other experiments, the researchers concluded that mentioning time increases our personal connection with a product, while mentioning money increases our focus on owning that product. Increased personal connection tends to make us appreciate a product or experience more.

So, those of you who are soliciting for donations to your causes, try asking for donations of time as well as money and see whether it makes your requests more effective. The rest of you, keep in mind that associating your cause or experience or product with the time spent on it might make it more appealing.

And while you’re here, thanks for spending your time reading this. I appreciate it hugely.

2 comments on 'Time is money, except when it isn’t'

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  1. Rob

    22 Nov 10 at 11:18 am

    And while you’re here, thanks for spending your time reading this. I appreciate it hugely.

    Want a quarter?


    Carol Reply:

    Tip jar’s on the piano. (I knew that would work!)


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