Research & Insights

Thinking About Morality Encourages Charitable Actions

In an increasingly busy world, nonprofits often have the difficult task of convincing volunteers to donate their time. New research suggests that one potential strategy for fighting the time-crunch involves getting people to think about how their actions reflect what kind of a person they are morally.

These findings come from a study published in the November 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Americus Reed II and his colleagues. The experiments suggest that encouraging people to reflect on what giving or volunteering their time says about their personal moral identity – how much a person feels like he or she is moral, kind, or compassionate – can get them to step up and volunteer.

For instance, one experiment began by asking participants to copy down nine words and write a story about themselves using each of the words. Some participants received a list of words that were loaded with moral meaning, such as “caring” and “generous.” Other participants received words that were relatively free of moral connotations, such as “favorable” and “polite.”

The participants were then asked to respond to a series of questions regarding their willingness to help with one of two causes – a campaign to raise awareness of the “need for college students to get involved early in volunteer activities,” such as promoting human rights, or a marketing campaign for companies. Participants were asked how much they felt that volunteering would make them feel connected and happy. For instance, participants were asked whether or not they agreed that helping with the campaign would “reflect…the type of person that I am” or “make…me feel emotionally tied to the people who will benefit” from the campaign.

Finally, participants were asked how likely they would be to either donate $5 (of the $10 of compensation they received for the study) to the campaign, donate $5 worth of their time to the campaign, or do nothing.

The researchers found that participants who were primed to think of themselves in a moral sense were more likely to volunteer their time than the participants who were primed in a neutral way, but only for the awareness campaign and not for the marketing campaign.

“[P]eople are less [averse to giving time to a cause] when presented with an opportunity to give time to a moral cause, especially when their morality identity is activated,” the researchers explain. Indeed, further experiments suggest that people perceive unpleasant volunteering tasks (like emptying bedpans for hospital patients) as less unpleasant when primed with a moral cues, and feel more connected to the people they are helping.

Overall, encouraging people to think about their moral identity “reduces the likelihood that people will prefer to give money over time,” the researchers explain.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

Americus Reed II, University of Pennsylvania
Adam Kay and Karl Aquino, University of British Columbia
Stephanie Finnel, BAYADA Home Health Care, Philadelphia, PA
Eric Levy, Cambridge University

Posted: December 23, 2015
Tagged as: