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What Motivates People To Give During The Holidays?

What Motivates People To Give During The Holidays?
What Motivates People To Give During The Holidays?
What Motivates People To Give During The Holidays? GUESTJames Weyant, professor of psychology, University of San Diego

ALISON ST JOHN: You're listening to Midday Edition. I'm Alison St John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. The act of giving reveals some unexpected secrets - giving makes us feel good. What makes the holiday season special is much about that good feeling we get when we're giving as it is about getting gifts. One result of this is that charitable giving is at its height between October and December. Non-profits know this and many of them, they say, receive more than half of their donations this time of year. Joining us to talk about what makes us give and how non-profits are tapping into that instinct is James Weyant, professor of psychology at the University of San Diego. Thanks so much for joining us. JAMES WEYANT: Thank you for having me. ALISON ST JOHN: Now, one reason people give at this time of year is to get a tax break. But there is a lot more to it, a lot more complex. Why does giving go up at this time of year would you say? JAMES WEYANT: Well, I think a number of things. One thing is it's an expectation even, and this is nothing new. Even 150 years ago when Charles -- the book Christmas Carol was written. ALISON ST JOHN: Charles Dickens. JAMES WEYANT: Yeah. Right away there are people coming in and asking them, of course it didn't work out very well but they were asking for money for the poor. ALISON ST JOHN: Scrooge. JAMES WEYANT: I think also that people like to have a positive image both for themselves and for others, and if they are giving at that time I think also that there is this kind of spirit that people are giving to members of their family and such. So I think it's sort of on a roll for that sort of thing at that time. One of the things is that I don't think that it's so much of a rational decision. If I do this I'll get it for my tax deductions. I think there's a little of that but I think mainly it's an emotional kind of thing. ALISON ST JOHN: And do you think we're programed to think it's better to receive even though the Bible tells us it's better to give than receive, but an actual fact when you think about sitting there at Christmas time there is in some ways more pleasure in giving than receiving a gift sometimes. JAMES WEYANT: Yeah. Because if you see the other person is happy about what they give -- I think a lot of the motivation is empathy, so if you can really understand the other person, feel the other person's pain and of course feel the more positive reaction then you're more likely to give. ALISON ST JOHN: Right. So now, charitable organizations know this. They know this is the time of year when people start opening their wallets for whatever reason, and there are a lot of them. Can you give us some insight into what charities are doing? How do they convince someone to give to them rather than someone else because there are some strategies involved here; aren't there? JAMES WEYANT: There definitely are. And there are so many possible places that you could give. And one person can't, especially of modest means, can't give to all of them. So they need to prioritize. So there are techniques that have been used in some of my own research I like to call this "getting more by asking for less". If you're -- if you intimate to people that you're only looking for large donations then you kind of delegitimize what they might normally give. I think there are two decisions that are made. One decision is - whether I'm going to give, and then how much. Often time’s people have in their mind how much they give, so by trying to prompt them to give more, you might just be working against that first question whether they are going to give in the first place and just make it less likely that that is going to happen. ALISON ST JOHN: So does that mean that it's pretty good strategy to ask for a very small amount? JAMES WEYANT: I think so especially with people that have more modest means. If you have someone that has deep pockets, then you might want to go another way and that's one of the things I think is tricky about it. You have to kind of gear your campaign towards who you think your audience is going to be, who the potential donors are going to be. ALISON ST JOHN: It's interesting because we had giving Tuesday recently. This is only the third year that giving Tuesday has existed, but the amount of money contributed this year to non-profits jumped 240 percent over last year. I wonder what is going on here; are we getting more genius by any chance? JAMES WEYANT: Well, having events really helps even events that take a lot of effort, like walkathons and that sort of thing. Because people get the feeling that people that are trying to solicit the money are more committed, and that it's more important for them. So that would be any kind of event that can be designed. Also it kind of gives it a nice time, that this is the time to give, because people like to give. They do feel better about themselves for giving, but they also worry. They also know they don't really have the means to solve all of the world's problems so they do have to prioritize. ALISON ST JOHN: Right. One of the things that happened during giving Tuesday, I was bombarded by e-mails and texts saying give to my particular cause. Do you think social media has made it easier for people to give to non-profits; is that partly why we saw such a big increase in giving this year over last on giving Tuesday? JAMES WEYANT: I'm probably the worst person to ask about social media, but I have a feeling that it might not be as much so. Because I think when it comes to charitable giving, that personal touch is really very important. So if people are getting the message to give, that's kind of remote and seems like it's kind of shot gunning it out there. It might not be as effective as just asking a person. For example, if you're walking down the street and a panhandler comes up and ask you for money it's kind of hard to say no. It seems kind of cold hearted to say no even though you might think, well rationally speaking my money probably could go somewhere else, to UNICEF or something and it would be more valuable that way. But there is that kind of emotional kind of thing - here is a person in front of me that is in need. ALISON ST JOHN: And it turns out apparently that if someone that you know recommends a charitable cause that could also make a big difference to your decision too, right. JAMES WEYANT: Oh, I think so. And there are studies that show for example even using a list procedure helps. So if you just name other people that give and especially if they know somebody, they are more likely to give because of that so. ALISON ST JOHN: Interesting. Just because someone you know is giving you think okay maybe I'll give to this cause as well. JAMES WEYANT: Yeah, because then you don't -- another thing is people don't have a really good idea of what the norm is, what other people are giving and that sort of thing. But if you know that, especially if you know by somebody that is a neighbor of yours, similar to you, then it can have great weight. ALISON ST JOHN: So what about the idea of giving to an organization versus a single individual? And I'm asking you this because I feel like we're being bombarded with all of these requests and it's kind of interesting to get behind the psychology of how that is working on us; are nonprofits perhaps finding it's more effective to use an individual case rather than asking for money for an organization? JAMES WEYANT: Well, they do. And it's interesting because sometimes they are the big organizations. Like UNICEF for example will send out mailers and they will show a child in need and they will tailor their literature. So you can actually help this kid eat for a year by giving some small amount. Because the donors want to feel like they are making some difference, that they are being beneficial. And they can get overwhelmed if you just tell them there are millions of people starving in Africa - you think what can I do about that? But if you take it to one person, they have a greater idea. ALISON ST JOHN: And I think this is so important because as you say, most of us are a bit limited in our resources. We can only give so much, and it's sometimes difficult to know okay how am I going to make these decisions. So to be more aware of how these pleas are moving us and whether that actually is appealing to our values or core values or some other psychological hook, you know, is kind of important. For example, when they use celebrities, you know, why is that effective for celebrity appeal? JAMES WEYANT: One of the things that's been found with regard to celebrity appeal, if the celebrity -- if it's really clear that person has been affected by the issue. So take, like, Michael J Fox, if he is collecting money for Parkinson disease, that's very effective. And again the donors say okay he's probably really committed to that and it's probably really important to him. And of course he's a likable person, and celebrities, that's why they are celebrities because they are likable. But if somebody is trying to raise money it's very lotable for raising something that hasn't touched you, but it winds up being less effective because of that. ALISON ST JOHN: Right. So you're kind of falling for this likability factor rather than the value of whatever it is you're giving to. JAMES WEYANT: The likability factor. And the connection, if the person is really connected to the charity. If it's really touched that person in some way then people -- again it seems to be more of an emotional reaction to give. So it really tugs at your heartstrings more if you know the person has been affected by whatever it is they are asking for. ALISON ST JOHN: Right. One of the other motifs for giving, I guess, is we should touch on is guilt, right. JAMES WEYANT: Oh, yeah. ALISON ST JOHN: How effective is that? JAMES WEYANT: Well, there is a lot of support for the notion of guilt compliance. When people feel guilty about something they try to make up for it one way they can do that is being more generous, but that is a double-edged sword because if you make people feel guilty and they are going to feel guilty because they might feel they can't really give a lot of money, then they might not give at all. So I would say, you know, what is the old expression, you can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. I think accepting the positive is probably a more consistent approach then to try to make people feel guilty. But I know when I get the thing from the UNICEF and I see the little kid there, it makes me feel guilty and it is effective. It has this emotional reaction. ALISON ST JOHN: It's one of the tools in the toolbox for the charitable organizations. JAMES WEYANT: Yes. ALISON ST JOHN: Because we're getting so many more pleas from nonprofits attempting to change the world there is an element of donor fatigue, isn't there. How would you say that a message can get beyond that, beyond the donor fatigue? JAMES WEYANT: Again, I think you need to make it personal. The more somebody is directly asking you, the harder it is to say no. You've got to make it seem important, make it seem as if there is a connection, and you also need to make it so the person feels that they are really making a difference no matter how little they give. That they really are making a difference. That's why it's good with the individual, kind of, case that the whole problem is probably too big for me to solve. But I can do that, I can give money, a small amount of money so this person can eat for a year. ALISON ST JOHN: Right. Does it make a difference if that person is living close? Are you more likely to respond to a national appeal big or international or something more local and close to home? JAMES WEYANT: Oddly enough, and I don't understand why it works best for national appeals to make the more personal appeal. And it works less well for international. I don't know. ALISON ST JOHN: Interesting. This is from research you found this out? JAMES WEYANT: Yes. ALISON ST JOHN: Okay. JAMES WEYANT: And one of the things too, people want to give because they are empathetic but they also want to work on their image they want for themselves and for others so they want to feel good about themselves but they want other people to feel good about them. They want people to think this is a nice beneficial person that is doing this, so one of the things that has been found for example is that people are much more likely to give in a public circumstances than a private one. We admire people that make anonymous gifts but that's kind of actually the exception to the rule. It's more likely that it will be something more public. ALISON ST JOHN: And of course you've got the other end of extreme someone is getting their name on the building. JAMES WEYANT: Yeah, like I work in a university and all of the buildings are named after people. Who is going to argue with that? They are giving tens of millions of dollars; if they want their name on it sure, we can do that. ALISON ST JOHN: As a psychologist, how much do you think people give out of pure altruism? JAMES WEYANT: Well, I do think there is an interesting double-edged sword. I think it's motivated by empathy. I think people really do feel and there is research to show people really do feel good about giving, but I think there is also a measure of self-interest in it that you're working on your image whether you realize it or not and that's why you want it public, you want it known. Getting your name in a list of donors or something means something to people. ALISON ST JOHN: Yeah. So if you were going to give advice to somebody who is thinking about thou they are going to distribute their resources, what should they be thinking about when they're making decisions about who to give to or what to give to? JAMES WEYANT: They're thinking about giving. Well, I guess the main thing I would say what is really important to you. ALISON ST JOHN: Right. JAMES WEYANT: What kind of problems do you want to solve. Also, what affects you more? Does giving to children who are starving, is that something that pulls at your heart strings or is it something? The arts or something else? The more the person is interested in it, the more they would give and I think the more staying power, the more likely they will give in the future. ALISON ST JOHN: Right. But I do think everything you've been telling us in terms of some of the strategies we can use that we could be hooked in to giving to something that we might not have ever thought was one of our priorities because of the connection that was made. JAMES WEYANT: Yes. And that is the thing that happens. We would hope that people would act like on a rational basis and say how can my money most be effective in donations, but unfortunately it doesn't really work that way, it's like. ALISON ST JOHN: Who makes -- JAMES WEYANT: Who makes the effective appeal at the right time when you're willing to give and that sort of thing. ALISON ST JOHN: Interesting. Well, I think you've given us a lot of insight into what encourages us to give and why we give and something to think about in the season, so thank you so much. JAMES WEYANT: No problem. Thank you for having me. ALISON ST JOHN: That's James Weyant professor of psychology at the University of San Diego.

The charitable giving season is in full swing and people are opening up their wallets more so than in years past.

Giving Tuesday, a social media campaign that encouraged people to give after Cyber Monday, generated $45.7 million this year, according to a preliminary estimate by the Case Foundation, a group that works to use technology to engage people to give back. The number was almost a 240 percent increase compared to two years ago.

But what motivates donors to give?


A San Diego psychologist said some people give during the holidays for emotional reasons.

James Weyant, a professor of psychology at the University of San Diego, told KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday that people aren’t making “rational decisions” when making donations to charities.

“It's an emotional kind of a thing,” Weyant said. “I think a lot of the motivation is empathy. If you can really understand the other person and feel the more positive reaction then you're more likely to give.”

Weyant recommended asking yourself two questions before making a donation: What kind of problems do you want to solve? And, what affects you more?

He used a panhandler as an example of when someone may give based on emotions.


“If you're walking down the street and a panhandler is asking you for money, it's kind of hard to say no,” Weyant said. “There's that kind of emotional thing like, here's this person in front of me. When people feel guilty about something, one of the things they do about it is be more generous.”

Weyant said donors also enjoy the positive image that can come with giving.

“Getting your name on a list of donors means something to people," he said.

Acknowledging donations in a public way could be the reason why Giving Tuesday was successful, he said.

“People are much more likely to give in a public circumstance than a private one,” Weyant said.