The Nonprofit Marketing Blog

Your gut is more generous than your brain

The Science of Generosity has shared some interesting new research from Harvard that says our gut instinct is to be generous.

The first instinct of humans is to contribute to the greater good at their own expense. It’s only when we stop and reflect that we become greedy.

According the Boston Globe, which covered the research originally published in Nature, “The research lays bare a sort of tug-of-war that takes place in our minds between two cognitive systems: one that is quick and intuitive and spurs us to cooperate, and another that is slower, rational, and leads us to act self-interested.”

Researcher David Rand said people participating in a series of experiments were most generous when making snap decisions about how much to give or when they were asked beforehand to remember times when emotion had guided them to a good decision.

When people were given more time to think – and to reflect on times when emotional decisions weren’t good ones – they gave less.

This is just the latest research which shows the more you make people think, the less they give.

In fact, researchers have tried to figure out if you can strip emotion and parochialism from donation decision making and get people to think more objectively. Michaela Huber, Leaf Van Boven and Peter McGraw have looked into whether you can get people to stop being ruled by impulse and stop identifying with individual victims. After all, many people say they want to be objective and focus their help on the severity of suffering rather than emotional reactions. But can they? The researchers tried a bunch of things to shift giving from the heart to the head, including a “cooling off” period before donors give and asking people to be more mindful of the influence of their personal beliefs. None had earth-shattering results – and these acts tended to lower giving.

As researcher Daniel Oppenheimer has told me before: “Crafting solicitations that appeal to human psychology can feel manipulative at times, which is why it’s important to remember people really do want to give. They like giving; it makes them happy; it provides meaning. When we help people give, we’re not just assisting charities and the causes that receive the money– we’re also helping the donors.”

So ask people to help. And make it snappy!

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About This Blog
Caryn Stein hi res

Caryn Stein
Vice President, Communications and Content, Network for Good

We’re here to help you win hearts and minds—and donations.

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