How the brain decides whether to donate

The classic of this decision-making writing is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.  In it, he talks about two thinking systems, cleverly named one and two.  System one is our fast thinking, emotional, instinctual system; system two is our contemplative, logical, slower system.  Many of the cognitive biases and heuristics that we talk about in this blog stem from system one having clever (and not-so-clever) shortcuts so that we don’t have to spend the energy to think.

There’s a subtle shift on this that more neurological minded decision theorists propose (not that Kahneman’s system is bad — there’s a reason it’s a classic).  They say there are three decision-making pathways: 

  1. Pavlovian: This is the system that makes you want a meringue cake dessert.


    Nope, sorry.  Knew I shouldn’t be writing while watching Food Network.  A Pavlovian pathway is instinct: it’s an unconscious or nearly unconscious, reflexible behavior.  It gets its name from the ring-a-bell, get-a-treat, now-the-dog-salivates-when-the-bell-rings conditioned response guy.  This may be System 0 in the Kahneman taxonomy.

  2. Habitual: When you repeat actions over and over, they become subconscious behaviors.  There’s a neurological saying “fire together, wire together,” meaning that if you do something repeatedly, the stimuli involved in that something will tend to become associated and more efficient working together.  Think of walking the same path through grass day after day.  Pretty soon, that path becomes almost as good as a sidewalk, controlled by your basal ganglia.

  3. Goal-oriented: When you make conscious, reasoned decision based on trying to get to a positive outcome.  You likely have heard about how people like President Obama, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg wear the same thing every day so they don’t have to make that decision every morning.  There is a germ of truth in this: we can only handle so much in a day and every goal-oriented decision takes its toll.

If you would like to read about these three mechanisms and how they function in prosocial (not selfish) behavior, there’s a nauseatingly detailed study here

So what are the implications for direct marketing?  I’d love to hear yours; here are a few of mine:

  • For a certain type of supporter, is reduced cognitive load part of the pitch for a monthly donation EFT?  That is, can you take something that you have to think about in the goal-oriented pathways and put it into automatic?
  • Conversely, do you want to?  Do you want to encourage goal-oriented thinking or aim for a more conditioned response?
  • Donors will likely expect that you behave like Pavlov’s dog.  That is, you need to do what you say you are going to do, especially as it relates to acknowledgments.  If someone is going to expect that hit of dopamine upon receiving their thank you, you need to follow through on that.
  • This likely explains the reason that gifts under $100 are given with the heart and over $100 are given with the head.  At that point, a gift goes from a habitual response to a goal-oriented action full of actual thoughts.
  • What type of conditioning are you doing with your direct marketing program?  There is a chance that premiums are conditioning some of your donors, whether habitually or Pavlovianly, to donate only when they get something for that donation.
  • Are there some means of communication that are truly Pavlovian?  I’m thinking here of mobile messaging.  When someone automatically checks their phone when they get a ding sounds, it’s not too many steps removed from a salivating dog listening to the bell.
  • See if you can discern habitual behaviors in your donors.  Do you have a set of donors who gives every year in November or December, but never in the other ten months out of the year (answer: yes, you do)?  Do you still mail them or call them with all of the other donors in June?

Any other thoughts?  I’d love to hear how you are building positive habits with your donors at or in the comments section.

How the brain decides whether to donate

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