The reasons for the gift

Publish date 06-03-2022

by Pierluigi Conzo

I have always wondered how much an act of generosity is guided by “selfish” motivations and how much it is the result of purely altruistic drives.
The scientific literature that studies the motivations of other-regarding actions, that is, oriented to the benefit of other people, has not found a univocal solution to the question.
Among the supporters of the "selfish" line of gift there are those who demonstrate that it is individual pleasure that drives altruistic choices: the very act of giving is a "warm glow" (warm glow) that provides all soul a not negligible emotional reward. Along the same lines, other authors argue that the gift is the result of an expectation of reciprocity: today I do good, because I hope / believe that sooner or later others will behave like this towards me. According to others, the gift nourishes the image that everyone has of himself, as well as his own reputation with the reference social group. Other authors have shown that giving minimizes the cost of deviating from a social norm that prescribes high generosity. According to the supporters of the second line of thought, however, people have an innate propensity to give, the result of individual past experiences, which is stable even in different contextual conditions. Other authors also show that individuals tend to donate to reduce inequality, to empathize with the beneficiary, to compensate the beneficiary for a wrong suffered, and for many other reasons that are difficult to summarize in this article.

A recent publication in the scientific journal Nature Human Behavior analyzes whether there are purely altruistic reasons behind donations to a charity of others, or reasons more oriented to satisfy personal benefit (impure altruism, according to the authors). To this end, the authors examined whether and how receiving letters aimed at encouraging people to donate affects their behavior.
To do this, they conducted an experiment in Alaska, where some families received messages inviting people (around 540,000) to donate to a state charity. More specifically, the authors randomly assigned each family to a control group (which receives no postcard) or to one of the two treatment groups that received a postcard containing an appeal designed to highlight one of the two main reasons for giving: attention to personal benefits (impure altruism, figure A) or those of others (pure altruism, figure B). People assigned to these groups received either the first message or the second.
The results highlight the relative importance of self-benefit in gift choices. Individuals who received the card highlighting the personal benefits were approximately 6.6% more likely to donate; furthermore, their donations were 23% higher than those of the control group. Messages highlighting benefits to others, however, increased the propensity to donate, but had no effect on the average donation amount. Additionally, people who had donated to the institution in previous years were more likely to donate, with larger average donations than those who had never donated to the institution before. However, receiving any message has increased both the propensity to donate and the amount donated by new donors, suggesting that such regulatory appeals can be an effective way to push donors to donate. who haven't done so yet.

It is certainly difficult, if not unrealistic, to identify a single reason that pushes people to give. It is much more likely, however, that behind every choice of gift there are mixed motivations. From a social welfare perspective, it can be important to understand how to leverage some of these motivations to push people to donate (more). The study just described demonstrates that invitations to donate - especially through messages highlighting personal benefit linked to the choice of gift - can be a relatively inexpensive tool to maximize the number and / or amount of donations.

Pierluigi Conzo
NP December 2021

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