Charity: The Psychology of Giving

Imagine that you are walking near a shallow ornamental pond when you notice that a small child has fallen in, and is apparently in danger of drowning. You look around for the child's caregiver, but there is no one in sight. Without pausing even to pull off the expensive pair of shoes you are wearing, you rush into the water to save the child.

You don't have to be a hero to do that. We expect it of you. You'd have to be a monster to put the cost of your shoes ahead of saving the child's life.

Or would you? UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, tells us that nearly 10 million children under 5 die each year from causes that we could prevent. That's 27,000 children dying every day. They diefrom diseases that are easy and inexpensive to prevent or treat, or from the lack of safe drinking water, sanitation and an adequate diet., an organization that assesses the cost-effectiveness of aid, suggests that for something like the cost of a pair of expensive shoes, you could save the life of one of these children.

It may seem odd to talk about giving more now, when we all feel so tapped out and worried. But that's not a very good excuse. No matter how hard hit we are by the economic slowdown, we are still vastly better off than those who are so poor that they struggle to meet their basic needs. Yet, though it would take comparatively little effort on our part, few of us choose to help them. Why is that?

People are more willing to help a single individual than many. In an experiment, one group was given general information about the need for donations, including statements like "Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than 3 million children." A second group was shown the photo of a 7-year-old Malian girl named Rokia, and told that she is desperately poor, and that "her life will be changed for the better by your gift." People in the second group gave more.

In the pond example, only you could save the child. Anyone with a little money to spare could save the poor child dying from diarrhea. That diffusion of responsibility brings out what psychologists call the bystander effect—if I hear someone calling for help, and I am the only one around, I am more likely to help than if there is someone else with me who also hears the call but does nothing. Unfortunately, when it comes to world poverty, there are many who do nothing.

"Futility thinking" also plays a role. Giving money to help the poor is, we say, just drops in the ocean. We focus on those we cannot save rather than on those we can. People will give more to save 80 percent of 100 lives at risk than they will to save 20 percent of 1,000 lives at risk—in other words, more to save 80 lives rather than to save 200 lives.

Subtle shifts could help to overcome our psychological barriers to giving. Just as seeing other bystanders not helping makes us less likely to help, so knowing that others are giving makes us more likely to give. Jesus may have advised us to do our almsgiving in secret so that God will reward us in heaven, but if the aim is to get as much assistance to the poor as possible, that isn't sound psychology. The more people talk about what they give, the more we can expect others to give or even pledge it online (for example, at

In "The Life You Can Save,"I suggest levels of donation that Americans could reasonably give, without any great sacrifices. They begin at 1 percent of income for 90 percent of American taxpayers, rising to 5 percent for those earning above $105,000 a year, and gradually increasing until they peak at 33.3 percent for those earning more than $10 million a year. That would raise more than $500 billion a year—more than double a U.N. estimate of what it would take to cut world poverty in half.

Some will still ask why we should give at all. Don't we have a right to keep our hard-earned money? Maybe we do. This isn't a matter of rights, it's a matter of making choices that are wise for our planet, for our children and for ourselves. On the last of these, I will cite one more piece of psychological research. There is now abundant evidence supporting what philosophers and teachers have told us since ancient times: the good person is also—typically—a happy person. A survey of 30,000 American households found that those who gave to charity were 43 percent more likely to say they were "very happy" about their lives than those who did not give. The survey doesn't show whether giving made people happy, or happy people were more likely to give, but the anecdotal evidence is strong that many people find that when they begin to give, they free themselves from the acquisitive treadmill and find new meaning and fulfillment in their lives.