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?