Why Do We Give? Not Why Or How You Think

New findings in the science of charity reveals some counter-intuitive results. For instance, people will give more money to a single suffering person than to a population of suffering people, and also give more when some type of physical discomfort — for example, running a marathon — is involved.

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This time of year, pleas for donations are as plentiful as eggnog and door-buster sales. Americans give around $300 billion a year to charity. And as NPR's Alix Spiegel reports, psychologists have started to look more closely at when and why we're motivated to give.

ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: The science of charity took off in earnest in the late 1990s. But the series of papers that - attempted to understand a puzzling psychological phenomena. When people give to charity, they'll give far more money to a single suffering person than to a population of suffering people - which charity researcher Chris Olivola, of the University of Warwick, says doesn't make a lot of sense.

CHRIS OLIVOLA: You should be more interested in helping more people than fewer, right? You should be more interested in helping 10 sick children, than you should be interested in helping one of those 10.

SPIEGEL: But that isn't how it works. In fact, Olivola says, tell donors about even two hungry children, or give them statistics about hungry children generally, and donations will fall by half.

OLIVOLA: In fact, I think one of the more troubling results is if you give people the photo of the child and the statistics, people are less moved than just the child. So statistics plus photo is just like statistics by itself.

SPIEGEL: These strange findings, says Olivola, helped inspire other charity researchers. And last year, Olivola and a co-author published many of their resulting studies in a book, called "The Science of Giving." This book includes all kinds of surprising experiments, which examine our quirky relationship to charity, including Olivola's own work on a kind of charity that now seems completely ordinary: marathoning for a cause.

OLIVOLA: On the face of it, you know, it seems great that people are making this sort of - I would say sacrifice. But if you stopped - and think about, it's kind of puzzling, right?

SPIEGEL: Marathons, and other charity events of that kind, are essentially asking people to suffer real physical discomfort for the privilege of then giving money - a formula that Olivola says probably wouldn't fly in the commercial world. If I'm going to try to sell you a car, I don't ask you to run a race first. But with charity, Olivola says, the more you ask people to suffer, the better.

OLIVOLA: When people anticipate that they're going to have to suffer to raise money for a charity, then their willingness to contribute to that cause actually goes up.

SPIEGEL: So, for example, in his research, Olivola gathered groups of people, gave them each $5, then made it possible for them to contribute a portion of that money to what amounted to a charity. But for half of the participants, there was an additional requirement before they were allowed to donate.

OLIVOLA: If you want to give any money to the group, you're going to have to put both your hands in very, very cold - painfully cold - water for 60 seconds - very painful task.

SPIEGEL: Now, the people who were not asked to suffer only gave about $3. And the people who were asked to suffer?

OLIVOLA: What we found was that people in that condition, the cold-water condition, gave more money. They gave $4, out of $5, to the group, even though we basically give them incentive not to give.

SPIEGEL: Another interesting new finding comes from an Israeli psychologist at Ben Gurion University, named Tehila Kogut. Kogut says that in Israel - like in America - people are constantly bombarded with telephone requests from charities seeking funds. And she says most of her friends have a method for dealing with these calls.

TEHILA KOGUT: They just don't pick up the phone when they don't recognize the number because they don't want to be asked for a donation. You say, why don't you say just no? Well, it's a problem to pick up the phone and say no.

SPIEGEL: So to better understand why people avoid saying no, Kogut did a series of studies, which ultimately made clear that people give to charity not just out of altruism or empathy but also - curiously - to protect themselves. Say you're called on the phone by a cancer charity, and asked to donate. Well, the very act of being asked, Kogut says, brings on a miniature existential crisis.

KOGUT: They feel that if they say no, the probability that they will have cancer will increase - that this is an act of tempting fate.

SPIEGEL: Giving, then, is in part, an attempt to ward off disaster. Now, as for implementing some of these insights, most of the researchers interviewed said that so far, relatively few charitable organizations seem to be using the research on giving to shape their appeals. They should, though, Olivola says. Science now has a lot to say about when and why we give.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

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