Impediments To Effective Altruism: The Role Of Subjective Preferences In Charitable Giving

Berman, Jonathan Z.; Barasch, Alixandra; Levine, Emma E.; Small, Deborah A., (2018). Impediments To Effective Altruism: The Role Of Subjective Preferences In Charitable Giving. Psychological Science, 29, 5, 834–844.



Type of evidence: Hypothetical/intentional experiment

Related tools: "Impact" (per $) info

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Paper summary



We found that even when effectiveness information is made easily comparable across options, it has a limited impact on choice. Specifically, people frequently choose less effective charity options when those options represent more subjectively preferred causes. In contrast to making a personal donation decision, outcome metrics are used to a much greater extent when choosing financial investments and when allocating aid resources as an agent of an organization

Note: these are all *hypothetical* choices.

This paper extends previous research on how people “appear to be -distorted altruists— they care about welfare maximization, but without clear information to make comparisons, they rely on their feelings to guide choice (Loewenstein & Small, 2007; Slovic, 2007)”. The novelty here is the use of “effectiveness information is provided across multiple different causes” rather than a single cause.

Their main theoretical characterization of their results:

…individuals view charity as a relatively subjective decision … believing that charity is a subjective decision licenses individuals to donate in personally gratifying ways at the cost of maximizing welfare

Summary of results

Note, all studies use behavioral lab/students or Mturkers; all decisions are hypothetical.

Study 1: Perceived Subjectivity of Charity – In rating statements (1-7 likert) like “It is important that the I choose reflects my personal tastes or values” vs “It is more important to rely on objective measures rather than personal feelings when choosing“ … they agreed more with the *subjective/taste* approach for charity relative to choosing investments, cel phones, or (marginally) restaurants, but less so than for a piece of art.

Study 2: Personal Feelings Versus Welfare Gains – ” When participants read that Mary felt an emotional connection with distant charities, they responded that she should donate to Hunger Care in Africa (M = 5.26, SD = 2.05) and also evaluated it as being more effective (M = 5.59, SD = 1.87), t(197) = -1.19, p = .24, d = −0.17, 95% CI = [−0.44, 0.11]. However, when Mary felt connected to local communities, they indicated that she should donate to Jump Start Your Community (M = 3.00, SD = 1.99), despite indicating that Hunger Care in Africa was more effective (M = 4.55, SD = 2.32), t(202) = -5.12, p < .001, d = −0.72, 95% CI = [-1.00, −0.43].“

- but note that Mary's connection to the charity also affects the stated “effectiveness” response!

Study 3: Charity Versus Investment Choice: Subjects assigned categories and fictional examples of either charities or investment, and told their domain category and effectiveness. Asked to sort these [how justified?], “significantly fewer participants chose to sort by effectiveness rating in the charity condition (67.8%) than in the investment condition (83.4%), -2 (1, N = 401) = 13.20, p < .001, - = .1” “Significantly fewer participants chose the highest rated option in the charity condition (32.2%) than in the investment condition (50.3%), -2 (1, N = 401) = 13.52, p < .001, - = .1”

Study 4: Decision-Making Role and Welfare Maximization 2×2 – Participants given a “donor condition” or a “president of a local medical research center” condition and were [not] given effectiveness ratings for each “department (arthritis = 92, heart disease = 86, cancer = 74). … selected so that the most intuitively appealing choice was rated as the least effective (cancer)”

“Results revealed a significant Role - Effectiveness Ratings interaction”; the effectiveness information had a positive impact for both, but a larger one in the “president” scenario [But is this specific scenario comparison s relevant to charities; hospital president has a distinct role, and this was a choice essentially within the *same* charity]

Study 5: Judgments of Decision Quality Similar setup as study 4, but subjects assess the (“percieved”) “decision quality” and “altruism”. Analogous results to study 4 for both. [The altruism result is puzzling: what justifies this? Are they answering these questions carefully?]


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