Saturday, July 23, 2011

The “eyes” have it

               Does being watched make us more generous?  Several studies suggest this may be true.  Recently, professors in Japan conducted a brain imaging study where subjects made choices about giving to 78 different charitable organizations.  During these choices, the subjects could see on a video screen when two student observers were watching them via a camera.  Analysis of brain activation showed that brain reward systems activated when subjects made a charitable gift.  But, these reward systems activated more strongly when subjects made a gift while being watched.  In other words, the neurological “payoff” of being charitable was higher when others were watching. 

In this experiment, in order to make a charitable gift, the participants had to give up the right to receive a payment.  Of course, many subjects chose to keep money for themselves.  As expected, choosing to keep the money also activated the brain’s reward system.  But, the neurological “payoff” for keeping the money dropped when observers were present.  The presence of observers made giving to charity more rewarding and simultaneously made keeping the money less enjoyable. 

The brain scanning results suggest two important ideas.  First, making a charitable gift can generate as much of an immediate “wow” experience from the brain as receiving money.  Second, knowing that others are observing the charitable giving can substantially increase its enjoyment.

               Another study suggests that the observers need not even be people.  Professors Kevin Haley and Daniel Fessler at UCLA conducted an experiment where participants received small sums of money and made choices about whether or not to share with others.  Some people made these choices on a computer with a standard desktop background.  About half of these participants decided to share with others.  The rest of the participants, however, made these choices on a computer with an “eye spots” background.  Here, the computer’s desktop background was a drawing of two eyes.  In this group, 88% decided to share financially with others.  This simple drawing of eyes on the computer’s desktop dramatically increased giving behavior.

               British professors Melissa Bateson, Daniel Nettle, and Gilbert Roberts tested a similar strategy to encourage contributions to an office’s “honor system” coffee collection.  In the office break room, coffee and tea were freely available.  Instructions above a donation box asked those consuming to contribute funds for future coffee and tea purchases.  Each week, the image above the instructions was changed to either a photograph of flowers or a photograph of eyes looking at reader.  During the ten weeks of the experiment, donations rose dramatically whenever the image of eyes appeared above the instructions.  Once again, the presence of eyes observing the subjects – even a photograph of eyes – increased donations.

               These studies all point to the significant impact of perceived observation on charitable behavior. These changes can occur, not only from actual observation, but also from a drawing or photograph of eyes.  For fundraisers, creating the appropriate social context for charitable decisions is critical.  Through perceived observation, fundraisers can increase charitable giving, and can even increase the neurological rewards from making those charitable gifts.

References: J. of Cognitive Neuroscience 22, 621-631; Biology Letters, 2, 412-414; Evolution & Human Behavior, 26, 245-256

Professor Russell N James III, J.D., Ph.D. directs the Graduate Certificate in Charitable Financial Planning program at Texas Tech University,

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