FEATURE5 September 2014

Motivations and money-raising in a social media world


The psychology of altruism helps explain why the ice bucket challenge and #nomakeupselfie campaigns became such social media phenomenons as Alix Barasch explains.


Despite initial accusations of ‘slacktivism’ – small online actions that do not affect real change –  this campaign has inarguably made a difference. Last Friday, the ALS Association announced that donations have topped $100 million in the past month, a 3,500% increase from the $2.8m the organisation raised over the same period last year. In a similar phenomenon in spring called #NoMakeupSelfie, friends dared each other to post a photo of themselves without makeup on Facebook and then donate money to cancer research. This campaign, especially popular in Britain, raised more than £8m in one week.

How did these movements gain so much momentum and eclipse numerous other online attempts to raise money for good causes? Many people have already discussed the viral marketing lessons offered by these challenges: make your campaigns simple, fun, easy and consistent. More than that, however, the psychology of altruism can help us understand the success of these initiatives and plan more effective ones in the future.

How can social norms encourage altruism?

These social media challenges take advantage of the psychology of social norms. We constantly observe the behaviour of others to ensure that our own behaviour is appropriate, and the behaviour of people who are similar to us is the best guide. For instance, an analysis of micro-lending behaviour on Kiva.org found that lenders gave more to similar borrowers who shared their gender, occupation, or even their first initial. Another notable field study of environmental conservation in hotels found that asking people to reuse their towels to ‘help save the environment’ was not as effective as telling them a majority of their fellow guests had done so.

Even more motivating was similar information about guests who had stayed in their particular room. People follow the norms set by those they feel a connection with, even when that connection is temporary or trivial. The Ice Bucket Challenge and #NoMakeupSelfie capitalise on these tendencies by showing people the behaviour of their closest connections: their family, friends, colleagues and favourite celebrities.

How can costly behaviour encourage altruism?

Some of my research examines how we determine whether an individual who does a good deed is acting altruistically for the ‘right’ reasons (because they care about the cause) or for other, more selfish reasons. Advertising one’s pro-social acts on social media involves a unique tension: on the one hand, posting informs others who might not otherwise know about the charitable act, but on the other hand, it might also suggest the motive behind that act was to get credit for being a good person. So how can we show others that our good deeds reflect true caring rather than a desire to boast on Facebook?

Campaigns like the Ice Bucket Challenge and #NoMakeupSelfie can help by allowing people to broadcast their altruistic behaviour without seeming like they are bragging, since they are just following the steps outlined by the campaign. In addition, these campaigns allow people to send costly signals: anyone can say that they care about a cause, but demonstrating a willingness to incur costs for the cause is a more credible sign that they actually care. Dumping freezing water on one’s head or posting a less-than-attractive photo of oneself online before donating are costly acts that help signal genuine caring.

Indeed, research on the psychology of pro-social behaviour has found evidence for a ‘martyrdom effect’. People are often more willing to contribute to charitable causes when the contribution process is expected to be unpleasant and effortful rather than pleasant and easy. That additional cost helps underscore the genuine caring behind the act to others, but also to the self. So dousing yourself with ice water may provide just the right amount of ‘suffering’ to make the donation feel more meaningful.

Even some nuances of the campaign that have drawn criticism may have been helpful in allowing people to better signal their generosity. Some found it odd that the Ice Bucket Challenge allowed people to dump water on their heads to avoid donating. Ironically, incorporating a ‘choice’ of whether or not to donate may have contributed to the success of the campaign.

Importantly, those who did give to ALS (and many people did so in addition to pouring water on themselves) could proudly announce that they had chosen to do so on their own, so maintaining a sense of autonomy, or ownership, over their pro-social actions. Requiring donation as part of the campaign or even heightening social pressures to donate could easily reduce donations. And as the campaign progressed, people modified their responses to show their sincerity in other ways. For example, as social networks became more and more saturated, donating to ALS may have lost some of its value in signalling personal caring. As a result, some people started reporting that they would instead be donating to another cause that was meaningful to them, giving them the occasion to talk about the mission and its personal relevance.

This deft balancing of social influence and the potential for costly signals of generosity can help explain the dramatic success of these charity campaigns. They allowed individuals to simultaneously act on two of their most fundamental desires: engaging in fun acts with their friends while demonstrating to themselves and others that they are good, caring people.

Alix Barasch is a doctoral candidate in Marketing at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania