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Randomly waiving some donations actually leads to more donations

University of Cologne psychologists show in several experiments that charitable fundraising campaigns are 15 percent more successful if donations might be revoked afterwards / publication in the ‘Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied’

In the behavioural experiments, UoC psychologists studied people’s willingness to help others. Predictably, our willingness to donate to charity is greater if some donors get their donations back. But despite giving up on these donations, more money was donated in the end. The study ‘Maybe Favors: How to get More Good Deeds Done’ by Dr Michael Zürn, Dr Judith Gerten, and Professor Dr Sascha Topolinski has been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.
‘The twist in the experiments was to add a tiny clause to an appeal for donations: If someone agrees to donate, then there is a chance that the donation might not have to be made after all,’ said Dr Zürn of the Department of Psychology. In online experiments, several thousand participants received a small amount of money that they could either keep or donate to charity. One half of the participants were told that if they donated, a random generator would select 5 percent of those willing to donate who would nonetheless keep their money instead of donating it.

At first glance, it seems strange that more donations would be collected this way, because after all, 5 percent of the donations would be lost. Nevertheless, people’s willingness to donate under these conditions increased by 18 percent while only 5 percent were lost.

‘Psychologically, the participants’ behaviour can be explained by so-called cognitive biases. One such bias leads people to overestimate the occurrence of low-probability events: The 5-percent chance that I can demonstrate my readiness to do good without actually having to make good on my promise simply seemed better than it really was,’ Dr Zürn explained. Such systematic cognitive biases can be used to nudge human decisions – for example to do more good.

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Department of Psychology
+49 221 470-6693

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