Is it possible to be both generous and smart about it? Most of us would like to think so but some ongoing research suggests it may be harder than we realize. And while there may be things we can do to make sure our money doesn’t end up wasted, charity appears to be one area where we have to be extra careful not to let our brains get in the way. In other words, the old adage is true. “A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.” That’s counterintuitive, isn’t it? We normally think about not letting our hearts and emotions overly influence our giving. But it turns out that engaging our desire to know more in order to make a better decision may keep us from giving anything at all.

“What we find is that when people are thinking more deliberatively…they end up being less generous overall,” writes Deborah Small a professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. More information about an issue or an organization can actually have a negative effect on giving.

Small conducted an experiment with George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University and Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon showing when people were given more facts and statistics about the larger problem a charity was trying to address they actually became less likely to donate. The best approach for a charity raising money to feed hungry children in Mali the team found was to simply show potential donors a photograph of a starving child and tell them her name and age. Even then, a charity has to be careful about how much information to share about the starving child. Donors who were shown more contextual information about famine in Africa — the ones who were essentially given more to think about — were less likely to give.

One reason analytical thinking might have this effect on the charitable impulse is that once people really think through what the charity they’ve selected might accomplish with their money they start realizing just how little their contribution is going to help. This is sometimes referred to as the “drop in the bucket” effect.“Thinking about all the people you’re not helping when you donate — the millions of children left to starve for each one you save — makes the act of giving a lot less satisfying.” To counter that in myself I keep a card on my desk with a quote from Edmund Burke: “Nobody makes a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”

Shopping – Not Giving

Another complication is creating too much of the wrong kind of information. Professor Small found that oftentimes charities present effectiveness information in terms of the cost of a unit of impact. Think about all of the annual reports you have read that use exactly this approach.  “For the cost of a cup of coffee you can feed a child for a week.”  It could be water, poverty, evangelism or affordable housing but the approach is the same. Make the donation as small and tangible as possible “The problem is when people see the cost of a unit they want to give exactly that amount. “If a malaria prevention mosquito net costs $1, donors tend to give $1. If it costs 50 cents, they give 50 cents. As a result, when the cost of the malaria net is cheaper, they’re actually giving less. There is a bias that results in an ineffective pattern in giving when you are providing that form of cost-effectiveness information.” People, essentially, are turned into savvy shoppers looking for sales instead of givers looking for good work.

If there can be too much of the wrong kind of information then might a picture be too sad or an image too unsettling? There is a phenomenon known as “emotion contagion” that occurs when people pick up cues from a picture and it produces the same emotion in the viewer as the emotion portrayed in the photograph. Not surprisingly, sad faces are far more capable of producing sympathetic sadness than pictures of happy faces can create happiness on the part of the viewer. Sadness has high “emotion contagion” value but happiness does not. It’s easier to “catch” sadness. However, ironically, a picture can be too sad and diminish the emotional effect. “Sadness may work only to the extent that people feel that donation can alleviate the sadness of the child. An intensely sad photograph might evoke a feeling of helplessness. Furthermore, intense sadness is associated with a ruminative cognitive style in which people become self-focused and have trouble relating to others.” If an image is too sad it may actually reduce giving. It has to be just the right amount of subtle sadness to keep the viewer from thinking about themselves. As well, it has to be just the right amount of information about the sadness to keep people from thinking there is little they can do. 

Giving from the head and the heart is more difficult than it seems. We can do both but sometimes we may need to know less than we think in order to do more than we might otherwise.