Even though people believe that donations should be allocated based on the neediness of charity recipients, the recently published paper by Cynthia Cryder (University of Washington, St Louis), Simona Botti (London Business School) and Yvetta Simonyan (University of Bath) documents a “charity beauty premium” - the tendency of donors to favour more beautiful, but less needy, beneficiaries. In this piece, Yvetta Simonyan considers the implications for charitable giving.
A few years ago, an article in the New Yorker drew readers’ attention to the fact that animals in need of conservation receive unequal attention and support. Pandas, for example, are sometimes viewed as “charismatic megafauna,” attracting disproportionally more money and attention than other endangered animals. The British naturalist Christopher Packham even offered to “eat the last panda” if it would improve the chances of less attractive species receiving more support.
Donors’ tendency to help more attractive causes extends beyond the domain of animal conservation: only 4% of $350 billion donated in the United States in 2014, went directly supporting the most pressing human needs in the developing world. By comparison, universities attracted almost twice as much.
Yet, when we asked people what is the single most important factor that affects their charitable giving, 46% indicated neediness of donation recipients (the second most popular answer was the impact, which was mentioned by 8% of the respondents). In another study, when we asked participants to evaluate photos from a fundraising website on the dimensions of attractiveness and neediness, they rated more attractive people as less needy. Combined, these two findings suggest that people should give less to beautiful recipients. But while some prior research investigations support that proposition, others, including the aforementioned examples from industry, suggest that attractive people are more likely to receive help than unattractive ones.
Want versus should
We propose that this incongruence exists because donors simultaneously hold two distinct preferences: a want preference for beautiful recipients and a should preference for the needy. Previous research showed that people hold want preferences that are based on affect and, sometimes, linked with desire. On the other hand, should preferences that are reason-based, logical, and more easily justified. For example, when choosing movies, consumers may hold a want preference to watch a comedy and a should preference to watch a documentary. In our research context, beautiful recipients offer intuitive appeal and immediate satisfaction, whereas needy recipients fit with a reasoned priority to help the most desperate individuals.
Deliberative or intuitive giving
We propose that donors’ want preferences for beautiful recipients are most likely to emerge when they choose intuitively, whereas donors’ should preferences for needy recipients are most likely to develop when they choose deliberatively. Research in psychology recognises distinctions in cognitive functioning between two types of processing. “System 1” processing, or quick intuitive processing depends on effortless automatic associations and tends to favour affect-rich options. By contrast, “System 2” processing, or deliberative processing operates slowly and depends on logical reasoning. So, when donors decide intuitively, they are more likely to select beautiful recipients in line with their want preferences; when donors decide deliberatively, they are more likely to select needy recipients in line with their should preferences.
We conducted several studies to test our propositions and to find the conditions under which the charity beauty premium effect is attenuated. In line with our predictions, when we asked people if they would like to donate to one (or more) of eight animals kept at a British conservation centre, the four animals that were rated (in a separate study) as more attractive were given almost twice as much money as the other four species that were rated as less attractive. Similarly, when we asked the potential donors to support charities working in developing countries, people demonstrated a preference to sponsor more attractive children over needier ones. So, given these instinctive preferences, how can we increase the chances of needier beneficiaries receiving help?
Our findings showed that people donate more to needier donation recipients when they are asked to make a deliberative rather than an intuitive decision. We also found that decision-makers tend to make deliberative decisions when they choose on behalf of someone else or when they are asked to evaluate the neediness of beneficiaries before deciding whom to help. Finally, the charity beauty premium effect disappears when the donors have above-average levels of empathy towards the recipients.
Implications for fundraisers
We do not know whether the individuals involved in decision-making on charitable giving felt any dissonance when making their choices, but we asked the study participants about their perceptions on how they want versus how they should donate. The responses indicate that, even though donors think they should give to needier beneficiaries, they want to give to more attractive recipients.
Interestingly, when the respondents make decisions deliberatively (that is, when charity beauty premium effect is diminished), they are less willing to donate in the future, suggesting that deliberation may act as a double-edged sword – improving the chances of needier recipient in the short term, but reducing the likelihood of future donations. Such evidence suggests that encouraging deliberative giving may benefit less beautiful, but needier recipients, who are competing with more attractive beneficiaries. However, for recurring calls for charitable donations, using more beautiful images instead of encouraging the donors to choose deliberatively may be more beneficial.
Image by Thomas Lasserre