Uncharitable thoughts

I was walking along the street today and, as there often are, there were charity collectors with buckets trying to get donations. Yet everyone walked past without a second glance! Why is that: are we just callous and uncaring, or is it something else?

Economists talk a lot about information asymmetry and how costly it is. Robin Hanson reports that psychologists have found people like to remain uninformed if it will help them avoid donating to charity. The reason is that people recognise that they are sympathetic creatures and will often feel the need to donate to a worthy charity when they are informed about it. However, if the subjects in the experiment could avoid information which might cause them to feel sympathetic for another and give money, then they did. This experimental evidence seems to correspond with what we see on the street, but it’s only half the puzzle.

The more interesting part of the question is why people would want to give to worthy charities and yet avoid information that induced them to give. Is there some primal urge to help others that we’ve evolved and now want to avoid? Is there some systematic inconsistency in peoples’ preferences that causes them to act this way? I have a cool model in mind that might explain this behaviour, but I’ll leave that for a post later this week. Does anyone else have ideas?

  • Grant

    The simple reason for me is that I don’t carry cash

  • Well, that explains why you don’t give on the street. But it doesn’t explain why people don’t want to know information that would lead them to voluntarily give money. I think that behaviour is quite tough to explain.

  • Kimble

    The only reason people give to charity is to feel better. Good donation collectors know this and so will try to cause the passing pedestrian to feel guilty. Then of course, donating to their specific charity will alleviate that guilt.

    People know this. They know that, really, the only reason they donate is to make themselves feel good. So they avoid feeling bad in the first place. It makes perfect sense to me.

    What better than alleviating yourself from guilt? Not feeling guilty in the first place.

  • So, if donating makes you feel better, why wouldn’t you donate anyway? Wouldn’t that improve your welfare? Particularly since, if you planned to donate, you surely wouldn’t feel any guilt about it just warm, fuzzy feelings.

  • Kimble

    “So, if donating makes you feel better, why wouldn’t you donate anyway?”

    People only donate because they feel guilty or they want to feel pious.

    If they feel guilty, donating will make them feel less guilty, but people rarely donate as much as they theoretically could. They will generally donate just enough to leave themselves with as much guilt as they can stomach. Generally, people know they can always donate more, and not doing so leaves a bit of residual guilt. Dont donate, feel guilty. Do donate anything but the maximum, feel less guilty. In this situation, not feeling guilty in the first place leaves them better off.

    Some people will donate less than the maximum and feel no guilt. They must feel that the people recieving the donation don’t really deserve any more and should be happy with the little that they recieve. This is borderline antisocial.

    If they want to feel pious they will donate, but the first criteria for being in this group requires that they dont feel any initial guilt. How many people would this describe in reality? If they dont feel any guilt, could they be considered self-centered and arrogant?

    Being in this group also requires that they donate an amount less than the maximum possible and feel no residual guilt. Again the personality this describes is hardly one to aspire to have.

    So you can see why people try to avoid donation collectors: avoiding the collectors means avoiding the guilt, leaving a normal person better off. Being in anything other than this group makes you an asshole.

  • Kimble

    Heh, my plan is to get this printed as an Xmas card along with “A donation has been made on your behalf to … “

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