Do do-gooders do good deeds?

Good deeds are an odd thing.  You would normally think that a moral choice would make one more likely to follow the path of virtue in the future.  And research has shown that that when people are told they are good people, they do good things.

On the flip side, researchers describe the licensing effect — the thought that a good act gives you the license to do a bad thing and still be balanced. .  

This is well described in a New York Times piece creatively entitled “How Salad Makes Us Fat.”

Researchers tracked shopping carts and found that selecting a virtuous product make one more likely to subsequently pick a “bad” product.  

strawberry_26_apple_salad

This is your meal? Clearly, you are going to hell.

Other studies have shown that people who have eaten something indulgent are more likely to do good deeds — compensation in both directions.

How can both of these be true?  Would you rather catch your donors coming back from the gym or the Krispy Kreme?  And is it better to remind your donors that they are good people, or remind them that it’s been awhile since they last gave?

One study has worked to reconcile these in the context of donor communications.  

In the study, people were sorted into three groups.  One group was asked to write about good deeds they’d done.  A second group was asked to write about bad things they’d done.  And, not surprisingly, the third group was asked to write about neutral things.  Then they were asked whether they would like to donate a part of their fee for participating in the study to charity.

Significantly more people donated, and donated more, from the people who were asked to think of good deeds than either bad deeds or neutral things.

This is consistent with the idea that people who think of themselves as good people are more likely to do good things.  People act in relation to their self-conception.  But how does this explain moral licensing?

The study discusses this as well.  It finds that more licensing happens mostly not when we see ourselves as good or bad, but when others see us as good or bad.  For example, in the study of shopping carts discussed above, we would be judged by the person checking us out.  And if you think this doesn’t happen, you have never worked at a grocery store.

This fits with our study on slacktivism: people who did good things to help people are more likely to donate; people who did good things to get recognition as a good person are less likely to donate.

This can be well summarized in the old saw “I’m not a racist — I have plenty of friends who are [name of target group].  But…”  The person is working to establish positive external conception before saying whatever is going to follow.

(Fun fact: in the history of humankind — literally tens of thousands of years of human speech — not one thing that came after the phrase “I’m not a racist, but…” has ever been good.)

So, in an ideal world, when your donor receives your communication, they would feel like they are a good person, but feel like everyone else thought they were a bad person.  A tough balance to achieve.

I believe this comes down on the side of reminding donors not only of the good they have done in the past, but also tying it directly to the good they aimed to do.  So it would never be “you’ve given to be a part of our Founders Circle;” it would be “you’ve given to save lives and help people.”  You are telling them that they only did it to do good, not for any greater glory.

Similarly, in your lapsed communications, you would be better off establishing that clearly the donor is the type of person who gives to appeals like this one than you would be reminding them that they had lapsed.

Thus, this framing isn’t of donations like the previous few; it’s a framing of the donors that can help your appeals.

Do do-gooders do good deeds?

Please share your thoughts.

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