Monday, 27 February 2012

Inducing an obligation

Tyler at Marginal Revolution points to a nice field experiment on charitable giving. People go out of their way to avoid folks soliciting charitable donations; they estimate the social pressure costs of turning down someone soliciting donations to be $1.40 for out-of-state charities and $3.80 for in-state.
Our calculations suggest that our door-to-door fund-raising campaigns on average lower the utility of the potential donors.
In other words, the warm fuzzy feelings among those giving donations are outweighed by the costs on those who'd rather not be bothered and who feel bad about saying no.
In the benchmark specification, a visit is estimated to lower welfare by $1.10 per household contacted for the in-state charity and by $0.44 for the out-of-state charity. The more negative welfare impact for the in-state charity is counterintuitive because more people are willing to donate to this better-liked charity. At the same time, however, the social pressure cost of saying no is also significantly higher for the local charity, and the second force dominates.
I'll admit that, after a bad day, I can get a fair number of utils from telling the Greenpeace door-knocker exactly why I won't give him any money. But their method is robust to those odd utility functions.

I'd note further that some charities seem to go out of their way to generate this "feel bad for saying no" disutility: the folks who send out free greeting cards painted by the disabled or free address labels are clearly setting up the recipient to feel an obligation to reciprocate. I just throw all that stuff out, but I'm a pod-person.

Katja Grace wonders if this phenomenon is tied to findings of inefficient charitable giving. As there's no chance that any of us barring Bill Gates can substantially push any charity down its marginal return curve, it makes no sense that we give little bits of money to lots of charities rather than just a big slog of money to the one we think does most good. So folks who'd get disutility from saying no can just cite efficient charity:
Maybe the campaign for efficient charity can have some effect on this section of givers. It provides a convincing excuse. I don’t feel so bad declining those who solicit donations when I can claim that as soon as they make the top of Giving What We Can or Givewell’s lists I will be morally permitted to consider them. Users of this excuse need not actually donate anything to better charities however.
Fortunately, door-to-door fundraisers are very rare in our neighbourhood - less than a visit per year. Even politicians rarely do door-to-door visits; instead, you'll see signs around that some politician will be at this particular street-corner at 7:30 to answer questions and talk with residents, and another sign down the road for 7:45 at the next corner. As this makes it easier for me to avoid campaigners, I'm very happy with the NZ norm.


  1. It would be interesting to see a similar study on those people who stand in the street with clipboards. Do they generate more social pressure than doorknockers, because everyone else in the street can see, or less, because they are so universally disliked? I bet they collect less than doorknockers.

  2. My view is that all these methods are sidewalk spam. They are people consuming my time and resources to advertise to me for something I don't want. I've never been entirely clear why e-mail spam is illegal and sidewalk spam is legal. I occassionaly expound on my views of sidewalk spam to those attempting to solicit money from me.

    Unless they're young attractive women. In which case I make an exception, ogle them and go about my business. My logic there is that I no longer have a disutility, them standing around on the sidewalk has value to me.