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Future Selves, Other Selves

March 9th, 2008 · No Comments

There’s a fascinating series of articles at the New York Times Magazine this week about charitable giving. While many of the articles tend to cover the same ground (e.g. the move towards measuring the effectiveness of donations) there are some real gems there:

Consider Mr. Improvident, who is just like us except that he is not wired to care about his future. (There’s one in every family.) Mr. Improvident gets no neural kick from saving for tomorrow. Yet we can see that he has an objective reason to do so. He is, after all, a person extended in time, not a series of disconnected selves.

We ought to be able to see a similarly objective reason for altruism, one rooted, as the philosopher Thomas Nagel observed, in “the conception of oneself as merely a person among others equally real.” My reason for taking steps to relieve the suffering of others is, in this way of thinking, as valid as my reason for taking steps to avert my own future suffering. Both reasons arise from our understanding of what sort of beings we are, not from the vagaries of natural selection.

This was from an article about the nature of altruism, the discussion of which tends to concentrate on genetic reasons like kin selection and reciprocity. The suggestion that there is an objective reason for altruism – or at least, as objective and valid as saving for ourselves in the future – is interesting. There is of course an argument that we are more likely to save for ourselves, because we are going to be ourselves in the future – but the problem with this is the existence of Mr. Improvident. If the corollary or Mr. Provident exists, then why can’t a Mr. Altruist? Anyway…

Another great article is What Makes People Give? To me, the article is misnamed, since it’s more about ‘how can we use psychology to make people donate more?’ – which is the reason why I recommended it to the Let’s Change the Game winning team. There are some fascinating discoveries listed in the article, and while they can’t be used for all fundraising projects, I’m sure some will prove very useful, e.g.:

A matching gift effectively reduces the cost of making a donation. Without a match, you would have to spend $400 to make your favorite charity $400 richer. With a three-to-one match in place, it would cost you only $100 to add $400 to the charity’s coffers.

… But the size of the match in the experiment didn’t have any effect on giving. Donors who received the offer of a one-to-one match gave just as often, and just as much, as those responding to the three-to-one offer. That was surprising, because a larger match is effectively a deeper discount on a person’s gift. Yet in this case, the deeper discount didn’t make an impact. It was as if Starbucks had cut the price of a latte to $2 and sales didn’t increase.


List set out to see whether donors cared about so-called seed money. Fund-raisers generally like to have raised a large portion of their ultimate goal, sometimes as much as 50 percent, before officially announcing a new campaign. This makes the goal, as well as the cause, seem legitimate.

To see whether the strategy made sense, List and Reiley wrote letters to potential donors saying that the university wanted to buy computers for a new environmental-research center. They varied the amount of money that supposedly had already been raised. In some letters, they put the amount in hand at $2,000, out of the $3,000 they needed for a given computer; in others, they said they had raised only $300 and still needed $2,700. The results were overwhelming. The more upfront money Central Florida claimed to have on hand, the more additional money it raised. When paired with the matching-gift research, the study suggests that seed money is a better investment for charities than generous matches.

Tags: charity · letschangethegame · philosophy · psych

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