Saturday, March 15, 2003

Scrooge May Really Want to Help

STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS—Why do people donate their time and money to charitable causes? Is it because humans are inherently good, decent, and sympathetic, or do we act simply when there is "something in it for me"?

Social and political theorists have debated this question for centuries, as it touches on the essence of human nature. The prevailing cultural norm in the United States, expressed by everyone from neoclassical economists to consumer marketing strategists, to the person on the street, bears out the belief that most individuals act primarily out of self-interest.

Challenging that belief, Dale Miller argues humans often claim to be acting in self interest to hide deeper feelings of compassion and urges toward altruism. Miller, the Morgridge Professor of Organizational Behavior and codirector of the Center for Social Innovation at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, points to a growing body of social science research that shows the simple self-interest model doesn't hold up.

Some150 years ago the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: "Americans enjoy explaining almost every act of their lives on the principle of self-interest. They do themselves less than justice, for sometimes in the United States, as elsewhere, one sees people carried away by the spontaneous impulses natural to man. But the Americans are hardly prepared to admit that they do give way to emotions of this sort."

Miller said people believe their charitable acts are in their own self interests "because they believe to do otherwise is to violate a powerful descriptive and prescriptive expectation." If this is so, then how do nonprofit organizations seeking donations provide cloaks for their donors' altruism?

"Our research shows that people like to have it both ways," Miller said. "They like to give to causes they consider worthy under conditions that are well defined and limited," such as when a charity offers a product in exchange for a donation.

With co-authors John G. Holmes, professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo, and Melvin J. Lerner, a visiting scholar at Florida Atlantic University, Miller conducted two field studies to test the hypothesis that people's willingness to help a charitable organization is greater when the act is presented as an economic transaction than an act of charity. "Even individuals experiencing strong feelings of compassion will be hesitant to act on those feelings if doing so is inconsistent with their self-interest, a circumstance that reinforces and perpetuates a collective belief in the power of self-interest," they said.

The studies involved charity appeals to students on a university campus to help children. The "low need" script asked for funds to buy equipment for a softball team, while the "high need" pitch pleaded to help children who were emotionally disturbed. The researchers also compared the effects of offering a product in exchange for a donation. When the description of the victims' needs was high, the offer of an exchange increased the donation rate threefold. With less urgent needs, the exchange had no significant effect, suggesting that in either case, the donor did not care about the product itself but the donor's perception of the worthiness of the cause made a difference.

The high need appeal presumably elicits more sympathy and willingness to help; the product exchange then provides the donor with an excuse to give. And the exchange makes it easier for the donor to acknowledge the deeper feelings of compassion or reduces the fear that the donor is entering into a long, open-ended relationship with the victims or the charity.

Miller's research can help nonprofit organizations recognize the wide range of motives behind donations of both money and time. "Just because people respond to material incentives, that is not incompatible with some deep current of public spirit and compassion," he said. "There may be other ways to tap and unleash that, especially with respect to recruiting and motivating volunteers. There is a big difference between motivating people to give, or making them comfortable doing what they are already inclined to do."

Related Information

Committing Altruism Under the Cloak of Self-Interest: The Exchange Fiction, Dale Miller, John G. Holmes, and Melvin J. Lerner, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 38 (2002)

The Norm of Self-Interest, Dale T. Miller, American Psychologist, December 1999