What Makes People Give? The Psychology of Charity

Ever Wonder How Those Kids Sell Raffle Tickets and Candy Bars?

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Ever wonder how those kids sell raffle tickets and candy bars? Professor Vishton describes the psychology of why we give to charity. It goes beyond altruism.

Woman donating clothes to charity
The psychology behind the act of charity is that we are an inherently social species that has only thrived because of our amazing ability to cooperate with one another. Photo By Halfpoint / Shutterstock

Evaluating Charity Prizes

Hello. My name is Peter, and I’m selling tickets for a charity raffle. All the raffle proceeds go to support the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Tickets cost $10 and every ticket gets you a chance to win a prize worth $10,000. How many would you like today?

When you are presented with a decision like this, your conscious thinking likely kicks into gear. Ten dollars sounds like a lot for a charity raffle ticket, but $10,000 would certainly be a nice prize. 

Curing juvenile diabetes is certainly a worthy goal. Maybe you’ve even heard of this particular research foundation and feel confident that the proceeds will go to good use—even if you don’t win the prize.

If you are mathematically inclined, you might start calculating the true cash value of the ticket. The math is pretty simple. You take the value of the prize and multiply it times the probability of winning. 

A 100% chance of winning $10.00 is 1 times 10 equals $10.00. A 50% chance of winning $10.00 is .5 times 10, equals $5.00. So if the prize here is 10,000 dollars, then if your chance of winning is one in 1000, .001 times 10,000 equals $10.00.

If the charity raffle sells more than 1,000 tickets, however, then the math says that this $10 price tag is a bad deal—the ticket you buy for $10.00 is worth less than $10.00. Making money isn’t the real goal here, though. The money is for charity. 

A rational thinker should consider how much they are willing to donate to this cause, and then, based on that, determine the number of tickets that he or she wants to buy. Nothing else should really matter here, but it does.

Why Some Raffles Do Better

Hello. My name is Peter, and I’m selling tickets for a charity raffle. Actually, I have these cool Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation pens to give out too. Here, you can have one. All the raffle proceeds go to support the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Tickets cost $10 and every ticket gets you a chance to win a prize worth $10,000. How many would you like today?

Across a wide range of studies, it has been found that this second version of the raffle sales pitch works better. Not just a little better—a lot better. 

If you offer people a gift first, before you ask them for something, they are far more likely to donate and much more likely to make a larger donation. In a situation like the one described here, we would expect 150% or even 200% as many ticket sales.

“The tip here is straightforward,” Professor Vishton said. “If you want someone to do something for you, give them a gift first.”

This seems obvious—at least on the surface. If you do something nice for someone, they are more likely to do something nice for you. 

What’s remarkable, however, is that the magnitude of the gift almost doesn’t matter. The gift can be a pen, a slice of pizza, or a cup of coffee. The return on investment that this can produce can be enormous—300% in some studies.

Reciprocity Principle

Here’s a parallel example: When you tap just the right spot near your knee cap—the patellar tendon—it causes a reflexive contraction of the quad muscles. There’s a motor system reflex that causes this to happen; it happens whether you want it to or not. 

When someone receives a gift, it seems to do something very similar in terms of our decision-making process. The gift hits an unconscious reflex that causes us to be more receptive to requests and more compliant.

People who study this refer to it as the reciprocity principle. One theory about the origins of this principle is that we are an inherently social species that has only thrived because of our amazing ability to cooperate with one another. 

Perhaps groups of humans who have this reflex tend to be more successful in their cooperating endeavors—building cities, running farms, and other things that have led to more survival and successful reproduction. Whether or not that’s where that reflex comes from, there is tremendous evidence that it exists, and it seems to be present in almost every human you will ever meet. 

If you give a gift to someone, that person will really crave giving something back to you. This doesn’t just work in terms of charitable donations, as you’ll discover in tomorrow’s article.

Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
About Kate Findley 450 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.