Which observation would persuade you to give money to charity? Seeing a rich person donate some of their income, or seeing a poor person donate a similar proportion of their income? This is not a very hard question. Most of us would be more persuaded by the latter. But WHY?
Could it be that we give more because we are shaken by the surprise? After all, one does not expect the poor to be as generous as the rich. Or maybe seeing the generosity come from a poor person makes us reevaluate what we believe counts as standards of good behaviour, for example about how much money one should give? Or what if seeing the generosity come from the poor person motivates us to think about ourselves and what kind of a person we wish to be?
In an article published in 2020 Moon-Kyung Chaa, Youjae Yi, and Jaehoon Lee describe five different experiments that were conducted to examine the above questions.
In the first study, the experimenters divided the participants into two groups and gave each one a story to read. One group read about a poor person who spends some of his income on a charity campaign each month. The other group read about a rich person who did the same. Later, they asked the participants if they themselves would like to donate money to the same campaign. As you might already expect, people in the first group were more likely to donate. Reading about the poor generous person made people more generous themselves.
In Experiment 2, participants were also asked if – in the past 30 days – they had donated to any particular charity or not. This was done to see if the history of people’s generosity affected their response. It did not. People, regardless of whether they had given money before the test or not, were more likely to help after reading about the poor donor.
Next, in study 3, they tested the “self-reflection” hypothesis that we talked about earlier. For this purpose, experimenters came up with a number of statements to assess how people felt about themselves after having read the story about the poor or rich person. Here are several examples of these statements:
The participants were asked to read each sentence and say how much they agreed (or disagreed) with it. Several other questions were also asked. The participant’s attitude towards the donors’ motivations was measured by sentences such as “The donor’s contribution seems sincere”. The participant’s attitude towards the campaign was measured by asking if they agreed with “I am favorable toward this charitable campaign”. The results showed that the answers to the self-reflection questions showed a correlation with people’s likelihood to donate.
Finally, in the last experiment, after reading the story, the experimenters showed a printed graph to the participants to discuss and draw their attention to high(or low) economic inequality in the society. The results indicated that when participants were exposed to charts that indicated high economic inequality, the impact of reading about the poor donor was stronger.
This paper shows us how social influence may be used to persuade people to be more altruistic by motivating them to improve their self-image, as if holding an imaginary mirror in front of them. The results showed that when inequality is made tangible, people are especially likely to think more of their own actions toward others in social life when seeing the generosity of a poor person. This effect is beyond other factors like what people think of a campaign and its incentive, or to what extent someone perceived a donor’s status like themselves. So the paper provides a useful way to persuade rich people to re-examine their obligations and responsibility towards the community and engage more frequently in charitable activity.