When it comes to charitable giving, donors discount effectiveness information, study shows

Firefighters deliver gifts to charities

When choosing which charities to support, people will prioritize personal preferences over causes that produce the greatest welfare gain, even when presented with more effective donation alternatives, according to new research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Titled “Impediments to Effective Altruism: The Role of Subjective Preferences in Charitable Giving,” by Chicago Booth Behavioral Scientist Emma Levine, together with scholars from the London Business School, NYU Stern School of Business, and the University of Pennsylvania, the study was published in a recent edition of Psychological Science.

Researchers found that presenting objective information on the effectiveness of donating to a particular charity over another has only a muted impact—much less than one would expect.

The study finds that people will use information on a charity’s effectiveness under two conditions: when choosing a charity from a position of responsibility, such as a job-related role; or when deciding among charities supporting the same cause.

This research suggests that the recent trend in measuring and publicizing effectiveness information may not have as a strong of an impact as hoped. That is, people choose to donate to the causes that they subjectively and selfishly prefer rather than those that do the most good.