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Mind Your Heart: Irrationally Giving

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Feb 25, 2017

You see a drowning child in a shallow pond while walking past it. Instinctively, you wade in and pull the child out. Your clothes have spoiled from the rescue. This cost may be insignificant to you, yet life-saving for the child

Peter Singer, a moral philosopher, uses this thought experiment to make a cogent argument. We ought to prevent bad things from happening, if we have the power to do so without sacrificing something of comparable moral importance. As we know, donations to credible charities definitively help prevent avoidable death and suffering. Logically then, we acquire the moral obligation to contribute because the philanthropic cost is insignificant to our standards of living. Although this argument seems shrewd and sober, it does not coincide with the way donors’ make decisions about their charitable giving. Several neuroeconomic findings reveal the importance of emotional underpinnings in charitable giving.

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Emotions in Moral Decision-Making

In one study, Greene and colleagues (2001) asked participants to judge the suitability of actions in moral dilemmas. The first dilemma described a scenario wherein a trolley is running down a track on which it will kill five people. Participants were given two hypothetical choices: they could either allow the train to proceed on the track by not intervening, or they could push a lever to re-route the trolley, saving those five people but killing a single person on the other track. In most cases, participants thought it was appropriate to push the lever to save five people at the expense of one. Interestingly, in a slightly varied dilemma, participants were asked to decide whether it was appropriate to push one person onto the track to stop the trolley and save five people. Computationally speaking, the same number of people are killed and saved across both dilemmas, yet, participants were significantly more reluctant to say that pushing a person onto the track was morally appropriate. The researchers argued that the second dilemma engaged emotional systems that were not active in the first ‘lever’ scenario. Greene et al. (2007) argued that these intense emotional differences altered judgements. This clearly exemplifies our susceptibility to irrational behavior in moral decision-making. Specifically, the context of the choice has a disproportionately strong impact on how we craft our personal judgements. In the context of a critical life and death situation, the framing of pushing a person instead of a lever has immense ramifications on actual behavior.

Recent advances in neuroeconomics research have led to a more formal examination of this effect. Neural evidence shows that brain regions associated with emotional processing, including the posterior cingulate cortex, medial frontal lobes, and posterior parietal lobes, were more active during personal moral dilemmas involving direct personal harm (Koenings et al., 2007). Case studies of those suffering from brain injuries suggest that emotional perception is a key determinant in social decisions involved in charitable giving. Specifically, Koenings et al. (2007) found that lesions to the orbitofrontal cortex (a region associated with emotional-processing) were associated with more ‘rational’, cold, and utilitarian judgements in deciding tradeoffs between one individual’s life over another. Emotionality is clearly a key component in moral decision-making. As such, the implications of an emotional nudge is discussed further.

Evoking Emotions In Charitable Giving

Practitioners aiming to increase charitable donations should leverage the identifiability effect. Research shows that identifiable aid recipients elicit more empathy than otherwise unidentified individuals in need. One study used the ‘dictator game’ to study this effect. In this behavioral game, a participant has the choice to give a portion of their money to others or keep the entire amount for themselves. Results suggested that giving was higher when the recipient was identified by a last name. Small and colleagues (2007) have argued that donors become entranced with specific identifiable victims. This phenomenon played a critical role when, “Baby Jessica” received over $700,000 in donations from the public in 1987 when she fell in a well near her Texas home. Similarly, £275,000 was urgently raised in 2003 when Ali Abbas, an Iraqi boy, was severely wounded. Interestingly, the same is true for animals as $48,000 was contributed to save a dog stranded on a ship adrift in the Pacific Ocean. These anecdotes show that the identifiability effect harnesses donors’ biases in prioritizing highly moving stories as they are easier to process and relate to than otherwise abstract statistics.

This effect was studied by Kogut and Ritov (2005) in an elegantly designed experiment.

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The AI Governance Challenge

Participants read a story describing either a sick child, or a group of sick children, whose lives are under threat. The survey described a new drug that could cure the disease. Participants were told that this drug was expensive, and unless 1,500,000 Shekels (about US $300,000) was raised soon, the children’s lives would not be saved. Participants were asked about their willingness to contribute under distinct conditions (i.e., presentation by name, age, picture, or all three). Results suggested that the identifiability effect was largely restricted to single victims. Willingness to contribute also increased with more vividness as identifiable single aid recipients introduced by their name, age, and image received significantly higher mean scores compared to less vivid conditions (age, sex, or name only).  

In conclusion, the identifiability effect is double-edged. It leads to less donations to unidentifiable aid recipients, but it can also be strategically leveraged to design more effective campaigns and solicitations with more vividly identifiable aid recipients. As Baron and Szymanska (2010) suggest, “Victims all have names. The fact that we are aware of one of them is an accident.” This accident, in the increasingly competitive space of charitable funds, is becoming an invaluable commodity.


Greene, J. D. (2007). The secret joke of Kant’s soul. Moral psychology: Historical and contemporary readings, 359-372.

Greene, J. D., Sommerville, R. B., Nystrom, L. E., Darley, J. M., & Cohen, J. D. (2001). An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment. Science, 293(5537), 2105-2108.

Koenigs, M., Young, L., Adolphs, R., Tranel, D., Cushman, F., Hauser, M., & Damasio, A. (2007). Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements. Nature, 446(7138), 908-911.

Kogut, T., & Ritov, I. (2005). The “identified victim” effect: An identified group, or just a single individual?. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 18(3), 157-167.

Small, D. A., Loewenstein, G., & Slovic, P. (2007). Sympathy and callousness: The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victims. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 102(2), 143-153.

About the Author

Arash Sharma portrait

Arash Sharma

Government of Canada · Behavioral Economics

Arash is a Behavioural Scientist at the Government of Canada.

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