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Why we give to charity

Social scientists have only begun to seriously examine the act of donating money:

…the emerging research on charitable giving has yielded a difficult truth: Thinking harder about how to give makes us less likely to give at all.

…Why anyone is ever selfless is a mystery that has fascinated, not to mention frustrated, scientists since Charles Darwin, who considered it a major problem for his theory of natural selection. If every creature on earth was in competition with every other, then how to explain bees sacrificing themselves for the good of the hive, or men and women running into burning buildings to save the lives of strangers? These questions have led researchers to posit that helping others, even when it costs us dearly, is simply part of being successful social animals: Despite our imperative to compete, we ultimately find it pays off to be generous.

Of course, it’s one thing to explain why people in general are inclined to help others, and another to examine how it plays out in the mind of an individual person. Studying charitable donation has been a valuable window into that process for researchers, because it allows them to quantify the amount of good a person is doing, and how much he or she is giving up.

One dominant strain of thought among charity researchers is that our donations aren’t chiefly driven by concern for others, or a principled sense of altruism — that instead, it’s largely a way for us to indulge the desire to feel virtuous and happy about our role in the world. This theory was formalized in 1989 by behavioral economist James Andreoni, who described the rush of self-satisfaction and sense of purpose one experiences after committing support to a worthy cause as “warm glow.” The reason we give money, Andreoni wrote, is that it makes us feel good — regardless of how much it benefits the people we’re ostensibly trying to help.

Another prominent theory to emerge from the research is that people give because of social pressure. We want to avoid appearing selfish or coldhearted, especially in front of people who are suffering or people whose opinions we care about. We might feel this type of pressure when we find ourselves passing a homeless person on the street, or when someone at the office asks if we’d like to participate in the companywide campaign for United Way.

Those aren’t the reasons we like to think of ourselves as donating, but experimental research on charity tends to support the notion that donating and thinking occupy separate realms. Jonathan Baron, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, asked a group of participants which charity they’d rather give to: one that achieved its goals so efficiently that it could spend 20 percent of its money on advertising, or one that required more money to do the same amount of good, and thus spent less on promotion. Though the first charity was technically more efficient, people tended to favor the latter: What mattered to them was seeing more of their own money at work, Baron concluded, rather than the amount of good it did.

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Interested in learning more? Read The Science of Giving.