10/31/2011 02:05 am ET Updated Dec 30, 2011

Explained: The Psychology of Donation

As we approach the end of the year, calls for donations to a variety of causes are going to increase. Charities want to provide us all with a last-minute chance to get a tax deduction for giving our money.

There are lots of good reasons to give donations. If you have made some money, it is a great thing to help others in need by sharing in your good fortune.

An interesting paper in a 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by Tehila Kogut and Ilana Ritov suggests that there may be an element of magical thinking in donation as well.

Many charities support research related to significant diseases. There are charities for cancer, heart disease, childhood birth defects, and diabetes. Kogut and Ritov suggest that donations to these causes are affected by a particular kind of magical thinking. When faced with the opportunity to give money to a charity, people often inflate their sense of how likely it is that they will get a disease and that spurs them to donate. Once they have given a donation, though, people often feel as though their donation may help to protect them from the disease.
In one study, participants were approached about a month after a big charity drive in Israel that solicited donations for cancer research. Some people were asked first about their chances of getting cancer and much later in the study were asked whether they donated during the big charity drive. A second group was asked about whether they donated first and then were asked about their chances of getting cancer.

The group that was asked first about their chances of getting cancer generally reported that they had a greater chance of getting cancer if they later said that they donated money to the charity drive than if they did not donate money to the charity drive. That is, people who generally feel as though they have a high chance of getting cancer were more likely to give money to cancer research.

A different pattern was observed for those people who were first asked about whether they had given money a month earlier. Those people who gave money actually reported that they felt they had a lower chance of getting cancer than those who did not give money. It is as if being reminded that they had given money to a charity decreased people's feeling of vulnerability to cancer.

Does this happen for all people?

The authors demonstrated that this kind of magical thinking is strongest for people who believe the world is just. That is, some people feel as though their good works will be rewarded and their bad deeds will be punished. Other people believe that the world acts in an arbitrary way and that their own lives will be relatively unaffected by whether they have done good or bad deeds.

The effect I just described was observed primarily for those people who believe the world is just. If you think that your good deeds will be rewarded and your bad deeds will be punished, then you are most likely to give to charities when you think that the charity is directly relevant to you. You are also most likely to feel protected after giving a donation to a charity.

Another study in this paper solidified the link between the belief in a just world and donation. In this study, some people were asked to think about situations in which events were fair to them, while other people were asked to think about situations in which the world was not fair to them. Afterward, people were given bogus statistics about how likely they were to get cancer. Some people were told they were highly likely to get cancer, while others were told that it was highly unlikely they would get cancer. Afterward, everyone was asked whether they were interested in giving money during an upcoming cancer fundraising drive.

People who thought about the world being fair were more likely to want to donate money if they thought there was a large chance they would get cancer than if they thought there was a small chance. In contrast, people who thought about the world being unfair were actually less likely to want to give money if they thought there was a large chance they would get cancer than if they thought there was a small chance.

In the end, any reason to give money to charity is a good one. For many of us, though, the choice to give money to charity becomes a personal one. We use those donations to help protect ourselves from thought that dangerous things could happen to us.