Wooden collection box with the inscription ‘Thank You’
(featured image: Howard Lake/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

A good choice for a good cause

Should we be guided by our head or by our heart? Or is this the wrong question?

you want to share some of your wealth with others, there are literally thousands of charities that are happy to take your money and distribute it to the needy on your behalf. But which charity is best? Even if you have a preference for a particular kind of beneficiary you want to support, there are often still many organizations that serve your particular preferred target. How to choose between them?

If you were an effective altruist, you would — as the name suggests — look at the effectiveness of the charities’ work. The extent to which they realize their mission (and indirectly also yours) is then the primary criterion by which you would evaluate the possibilities and make your final selection. However, that is not always easy to establish. And isn’t charity really something that you should do with your heart, rather than based on cold, impersonal calculation?

Harvard psychologist Lucius Caviola and colleagues have reviewed the reasons why people select particular causes, and why they are often not effective altruists. They identify two main categories of reasons: motivational (emotion focused) and epistemic (knowledge focused).

The heart

In the first bunch, we encounter the catchall factor “ preferences”. We have many predilections — for food and drink, clothes, entertainment and so on — that are not based on any reasoned evaluation. What we prefer simply feels good and right, and that can just as well apply to charities. Closely linked is what the researchers call narrow affective motivation. Especially where our intent is to help, we are motivated by whatever activates our empathy or sympathy. Why? We cannot rationally explain it any more than why we prefer sauvignon wine to chardonnay: we just feel more inclined to support this rather than that.

Sauvignon or Chardonnay? It’s a matter of preference (image: jarmoluk via Pixabay)

Another factor that may be at play is the existence of an apparent personal connection, for example through an illness we, or a loved one, experienced. This influence is a form of : a rule of thumb telling us that, if we experience a recognition effect linked with an important part of our life, then that’s the one to go for. A related element might be proximity in space or in time: charities that work nearby (or near a place that is meaningful to us) will have the edge. Likewise, charities that provide immediate support rather than focus on future generations (“what has posterity ever done for us?”, the authors joke). This is more like a cognitive bias, a propensity to favour what is close and familiar to what is distant and unknown.

We also tend to be moved proportionately less by large numbers and statistics, a phenomenon known as scope neglect. One reason is that we may feel that our donation would be a mere drop in the ocean, and would be worth more per recipient, and hence more meaningful, if there are fewer of them. In addition, we are generally averse to comparing charities and prioritize them according to how worthy they are. A final factor is the effect that a donation may have on our reputation — the social reward our peers bestow on us for supporting a given charity may be wholly unrelated to its effectiveness.

The head

But we also tend to measure generosity (ours, and others’) by the size of the sacrifice, not by the size of the result — we value the input more than the output. This is reminiscent of an anecdote behavioural economist Dan Ariely tells: when they locked themselves out of the house, people happily pay the fee when a junior locksmith takes a full hour to help them, and even breaks the lock in the process; but they complain when an experienced locksmith, who takes barely five minutes and leaves the lock intact, charges the same amount.

Next, many people use an inadequate heuristic for a charity’s cost-effectiveness: how big its overheads are (or what percentage of donations is passed on to the beneficiaries). This measure is a poor predictor of overall effectiveness (to do good, a charity does need infrastructure and competent staff, and that costs money). Moreover, the researchers found, we don’t really believe that the effectiveness of a charity can really be measured, and we believe that any difference between charities is negligible. Of course, we do so without actually checking whether these beliefs are justified (they are not).

An effective altruist would not be swayed by all these spurious factors, and simply collect the right kind of evidence to work out where their charitable pound, dollar or euro has the most impact.

Good feelings, not just for good causes

Emotions: not just fluffy stuff, but also part of solid, evidence-based decisions (image: Kranich17 via Pixabay)

It is easy to generalize many of the obstacles to effective altruism to other settings where we need to make choices. We are often led by preferences we have had longer than we can remember. If there ever was a deliberate choice involved, it is long forgotten. No need for reasoning: following our preferences just feels good. We also tend to be attracted to that which has a personal connection. Salespeople know this very well. When they try to sell you a car, a kitchen or a three-piece suite, in their chitchat they quickly try to find out something about you — your work, your hobby, the football team you support — that they can make a link to. Buying local — whether it’s from our village, our region or our country — or choosing options that deliver immediate benefit rather than sometime in the future (think of retirement saving) too are tendencies we can widely observe in others and in ourselves.

In many ways, we often seem to be guided by what feels good, while we really ought to dispassionately consider the evidence and work out what would really serve us best. But is this contrast between the head and the heart, between reason and emotion, really an accurate reflection of what happens? Not quite.

For what happens after a deliberate, reasoned, process that has produced a decision or a choice, and in which all the evidence that matters was level-headedly taken into account? We feel that it is good. When we work out whether or not to take a job, or move house, we don’t do so on a whim, and yet the emotion we experience when we have made up our mind is palpable. The same is true for the effective altruist who considerately weighs up where best to put their money.

It is true that we don’t always need to systematically consider all the evidence to make a good choice. Acting directly on our emotions can very well be the right thing to do. But we should not believe that by making evidence-based decisions, we sacrifice emotions on the altar of reason. Whether or not we reason our way to a choice, it will always be emotion that concludes the decision-making process.

Originally published at http://koenfucius.wordpress.com on May 7, 2021.

Thank you for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. If so, you can easily share it far and wide — with handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thanks!

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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