Why don't people help others more? - part 2

In part 1, I talked about some ways in which we might motivate people to be more altruistic. Providing a personal connection with the victim and appealing to a someone’s emotional responses seem to help. So too can instilling a sense of responsibility to help others, and an understanding that doing so is not futile.

All these observations are incrdibly valuable. But I think there’s more to understanding why people don’t help others more, despite the fact they may believe in doing so in principle. A huge factor here is the behaviour of others. Most people appear to have a strong tendency not to want to help more than the other people around them.

What’s Fair In Help?

Formula If you were asked to share this money with a stranger, how much would you give them?

It’s clear that people value fairness, even to their own detriment. In a game called “the Ultimatum Game”, one participant is given a sum of money by the researcher, say $10, and told they can split this money with an anonymous second player in any proportion they choose – give them $10, give them $7, give them $5, give them nothing, everything is fair game. The catch is, however, the second player, after hearing of the split anonymously, gets to vote to accept it or reject it. Should the split be accepted, both players walk away with the agreed amount. But should the split be rejected, both players walk away with nothing.

A Fair Split

The economist, expecting ideally rational and perfectly self-interested players, predicts that the second player would accept any split that gets them money, since anything is better than nothing. And the first player, understanding this, would naturally offer $1 and keep $9 for himself. At no point are identities revealed, so reputation and retribution are no issue.

But the results turn out to be quite different – the vast majority offer an equal split. Yet, when an offer comes around that offers $2 or less, it is almost always rejected, even though $2 is better than nothing.1 And this effect persists even when played for thousands of dollars and persists across nearly all cultures.

Splitting and Anchoring in Charity

This sense of fairness persists into helping as well – people generally have a strong tendency not to want to help more than the other people around them, and if they find themselves the only ones helping on a frequent basis, they start to feel a “sucker”. On the flipside, if others are doing more, they will follow suit.2,3,4

Those told the average donation to a charity nearly always tend to give that amount, even if the average told to them is a lie, having secretly been increased or decreased. And it can be replicated even without lying – those told about an above average gift were far more likely to donate more, even attempting to match that gift.5,6 Overall, we tend to match the behavior of our reference class – those people we identify with – and this includes how much we help. We donate more when we believe others are donating more, and donate less when we believe others are doing so.

Challenging the Self-Interest Norm

But there’s a way to break this cycle of futility, responsibility, and fairness – challenge the norm by openly communicating about helping others. While many religious and secular values insist that the best giving is anonymous giving, this turns out to not always be the case. While there may be other reasons to give anonymously, don’t forget the benefits of giving openly – being open about helping inspires others to help, and can help challenge the norms of the culture.

Indeed, many organizations now exist to help challenge the norms of donations and try to create a culture where they give more. Giving What We Can is a community of 230 people (including me!) who have all pledged to donate at least 10% of their income to organizations working on ending extreme poverty, and submit statements proving so. Bolder Giving has a bunch of inspiring stories of over 100 people who all give at least 20% of their income, with a dozen giving over 90%! And these aren’t all rich people, some of them are even ordinary students.

Who’s Willing to Be Altruistic?

While people are not saints, experiments have shown that people tend to grossly overestimate how self-interested other people are – for one example, people estimated that males would overwhelmingly favor a piece of legislation to “slash research funding to a disease that affects only women”, even while – being male – they themselves do not support such legislation.7

This also manifests itself in an expectation that people be “self-interested” in their philanthropic cause – suggesting much stronger support for volunteers in Students Against Drunk Driving who themselves knew people killed in drunk driving accidents versus those people who had no such personal experiences but just thought it to be “a very important cause”.8

Alex de Tocqueville, echoing the early economists who expected $9/$1 splits in the Ultimatum Game, wrote in 1835 that “Americans enjoy explaining almost every act of their lives on the principle of self-interest”.9 But this isn’t always the case, and in challenging the norm, people make it more acceptable to be altruistic. It’s not just “goody two-shoes”, and it’s praiseworthy to be “too charitable”.

A Bit of a Nudge

A somewhat pressing problem in getting people to help was in organ donation – surely no one was inconvenienced by having their organs donated after they had died. Yet, why would people not sign up? And how could we get more people to sign up?

In Germany, only 12% of the population are registered organ donors. In nearby Austria, that number is 99.98%. Are people in Austria just less worried about what will happen to them after they die, or just that more altruistic? It turns out the answer is far more simple – in Germany you must put yourself on the register to become a potential donor (opt-in), whereas in Austria you are a potential donor unless you object (opt-out). While people may be, for right or for wrong, worried about the fate of their body after it is dead, they appear less likely to express these reservations in opt-out systems.10

While Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein argue in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wellness, and Happiness that we sometimes suck at making decisions in our own interest and all could do better with more favorable “defaults”, such defaults are also pressing in helping people.

While opt-out organ donation is a huge deal, there’s another similar idea – opt-out philanthropy. Back before 2008 when the investment bank Bear Stearns still existed, Bear Stearns listed their guiding principle as philanthropy as fostering good citizenship and well-rounded individuals. To this effect, they required the top 1000 most highest paid employees to donate 4% of their salary and bonuses to non-profits, and prove it with their tax returns. This resulted in more than $45 million in donations during 2006. Many employees described the requirement as “getting themselves to do what they wanted to do anyway”.


So, according to what we’ve seen here and in part 1, what could we do to get other people to help more, besides moralize? Well, we have five key take-aways:

  1. Present these people with a single and highly identifiable victim that they can help
  2. Nudge them with a default of opt-out philanthropy
  3. Be more open about our willingness to be altruistic and encourage other people to help
  4. Make sure people understand the average level of helping around them, and
  5. Instill a responsibility to help and an understanding that doing so is not futile.

Hopefully, with these tips and more, helping people more can become just one of those things we do.

You might also enjoy:

Why don’t people help others more? - part 1

Why don’t charities spend more on fundraising?

Is there such a thing as bad charity?

An interview with Brian Tomasik, one of our members who has spent many years thinking and writing about how to most effectively reduce suffering.


  1. Martin Nowak, Karen Page, and Karl Sigmund. 2000. “Fairness Versus Reason in the Ultimatum Game”. Science 289: p1183-75.

  2. Lee Ross and Richard E. Nisbett. 1991. The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, p27-46.

  3. Robert Cialdini. 2001. Influence: Science and Practice, 4th Edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

  4. Judith Lichtenberg. 2004. “Absence and the Unfond Heart: Why People Are Less Giving Than They Might Be”. in Deen Chatterjee, ed. The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and the Distant Needy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  5. Jen Shang and Rachel Croson. Forthcoming. “Field Experiments in Charitable Contribution: The Impact of Social Influence on the Voluntary Provision of Public Goods”. The Economic Journal.

  6. Rachel Croson and Jen Shang. 2008. “The Impact of Downward Social Information on Contribution Decision”. Experimental Economics 11: p221-33.

  7. Dale Miller. 199. “The Norm of Self-Interest”. American Psychologist 54: 1053-60.

  8. Rebecca Ratner and Jennifer Clarke. Unpublished. “Negativity Conveyed to Social Actors Who Lack a Personal Connection to the Cause”.

  9. Alexis de Tocqueville in J.P. Mayer ed., G. Lawrence, trans. 1969. Democracy in America Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, p546.

  10. Eric Johnson and Daniel Goldstein. 2003. “Do Defaults Save Lives?”. Science 302: p1338-39.

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