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How do people make decisions regarding charitable giving?

While there are people in need all around the globe, why is it that some people and organizations receive donations while others do not?


Research by Brian Knutson, Paul Slovic, Daniel Vastfjall and I recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that including photographs of donation recipients increased charitable giving decisions by evoking positive emotional responses.  This increase in giving was predicted by brain activity in a specific region associated with positive feelings and reward (i.e. the nucleus accumbens).

xThere is a well-established phenomenon called the “identifiable victim affect”, in which people prefer to give to vivid identifiable victims rather than anonymous victims of misfortune.  It has been thought that emotion might play a role in thiseffect, but research had not yet established which emotions matter and how.  To understand what causes this effect, we asked subjects to make decisions about donating to African orphans while being scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI).  Of the orphans they saw, half were depicted with photographs, while the other half were depicted only with silhouettes.

xWhat we found was that just viewing the photograph increased people’s willingness to donate by about 50%.  This increase in giving was associated with

positive rather than negative emotional responses to the photographs, and could statistically account for the giving preference.  Further, of all the brain regions activated by the photographs, only the nucleus accumbens, a region often associated with positive emotions and reward, predicted decisions to give.

These findings have obvious implications for charities and policy makers. Charities might be able to take advantage of this information to craft more effective requests for donations (for instance, should you put a child with a happy or sad expression on your brochure, or none at all?). On the other hand, given the power of the identifiable victim effect, policymakers may want to reconsider whether they are allocating resources to only the visible few at the expense of the anonymous many.

You can find the full article here:

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