Research News

When making small donations, we prefer anonymity

Kelly Goldsmith (Owen Graduate School of Management)

Most of us have been asked by a cashier at a store whether we’d like to round up or add a few dollars to the bill to support a charity. In some cases, as a thank-you, our names might be written on a star to be displayed in the store.

Although it’s generally thought that public recognition helps encourage people to do good things, new research suggests there are some situations where an offer to publicize a donation can backfire. According to coauthor Kelly Goldsmith, associate professor of marketing at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management, people are more likely to make a small, routine donation to a cause if they’re told it will be anonymous.

The peer-reviewed study, Unobserved Altruism: How Self-Signaling Motivations and Social Benefits Shape Willingness to Donate, is forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. It’s the first study to demonstrate how and when multiple motives may compete with one another.

“We wanted to understand what might motivate someone to donate in these everyday situations, and what we suspected is that choosing to make a donation tells us something about ourselves,” Goldsmith said. “It’s not just that we know it’s altruistic, it makes us feel altruistic.”

Goldsmith and Savary conducted a series of experiments designed to tease out what impact the promise of public recognition had on that feeling.

And they found that the prospect of public recognition seemed to make givers feel confused about their motives, making them wonder if they were donating out of genuine altruism or just for a pat on the back, Goldsmith said. “The effect was so strong that it actually made givers significantly less likely to donate,” she added. In an experiment using real money, they found that the promise of public recognition reduced the donation likelihood by nearly 20 percent.

“It’s not just that we know it’s altruistic, it makes us feel altruistic.”

There were certain situations that could reverse the effect, Goldsmith noted. If we feel like we’re doing something out of the ordinary, we may feel less conflicted about our motives because we’re already behaving out of character to begin with. Likewise, if the social benefit to publicizing a donation is strong enough—for example, if we want to make a good impression on our boss—it can overcome any discomfort we might have about seeking recognition.

The researchers note that the donation amounts in this study were small—no more than a few dollars—and that future studies may want to explore how this effect may impact larger gifts. Ultimately, however, Goldsmith said this study sheds a critical new light on the psychology underlying donation decisions and how conflicting incentives can sometimes drown out altruistic behavior.