A Final Thought on Charity

One of Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s closing thoughts in their chapter about charity in The Elephant in the Brain reads, “The forms of charity that are most effective at helping others aren’t the most effective at helping donors signal their good traits. And when push comes to shove, donors will often choose to help themselves.”

 

We human beings are not that great at being altruistic. We are social creatures, and we know that what we do is always being judged by our social tribe in a complex context. It is not just about what we do, but who we are, what kind of people we want to associate with, how we choose to use our time and resources, and what we try to do in the world. Charity, and any altruistic behavior we engage in, fits into this larger narrative about the person we are or try to be.

 

We cannot separate our charitable behavior from our individual self-interest or from the larger context of our live. As a result, charity is something that we use as a signaling mechanism. It is often about helping others, but it is just as often about telling people something about ourselves. This is where Simler and Hanson’s quote comes from.

 

We can use our charity to primarily do good in the world, or we can get the benefits of doing good while primarily showing people how generous we are. We can use our money and extra time to do something meaningful for others that also benefits us with social rewards and accolades, however, the personal benefit from charitable behaviors can be so great that it can take over and become the driving force behind our decisions.

 

This certainly doesn’t happen for everyone and doesn’t apply in every situation, but for a bulk of our charitable behaviors it is a factor at play. It is important to recognize so that we understand what is pushing us to make our donations, and to reshape those pressures so that we use our charitability in the best way to really make the world a better place. We should also acknowledge it so that we can encourage others to do something generous and to help others receive a positive social reward, but only if their charity is also the most effective that it can be.

Marginal Charity – An Opportunity for Big Business

Big businesses strive for efficiency. If something can be reduced, eliminated, streamlined, and automated then at some point it will be. Each tiny advantage can be huge at scale, and can mean the difference between growing and laying off employees. Flaunting success, hiding failure, and maximizing at the margins are standard business operating procedures, but they create a void that could be filled for companies to do meaningful things that can be viewed in a charitable light. In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler talk about “marginal charity” an idea that you can do something that economically doesn’t add much cost to your own life, only marginally diminishes your efficiency, but provides a big element of charity to the business you are already doing.

 

In the book, the authors consider a high rise apartment building. Say 10 floors is the height to shoot for in order to achieve maximum efficiency. There may be situations where adding one more floor would not increase the cost by a significant amount, but would reduce the efficiency that the building owners and property developers expect from the complex, especially if the final floor was developed to allow for more low-income/affordable housing. Adding this extra story doesn’t make sense in a pure efficiency model, but if you are trying to add a touch of charity to the business you are already engaged in as the developer, you can do a lot of good by providing many additional affordable housing units with little marginal cost to yourself.

 

Hanson and Simler write, “In terms of providing value to others, marginal charity is extremely efficient. It does a substantial amount of good for others at very little cost to oneself. (In other words, it has an incredible ROD [Return on Donation]).” Finding a way to add a little extra while taking away from your own individual efficiency may make the entire system a bit more equitable, and a bit more efficient as a whole. Small tweaks to how to do things and create the systems that shape our lives can help provide for greater long-term benefit even if they slightly limit what is possible for us now.

 

Since we are not all property developers, we won’t all have this type of chance to make a big difference through small actions in a business context. But we can think about marginal charity in our own lives and try to set up systems and structures that help us default toward charitable behavior. I don’t think this looks like donating a dollar to the thing the grocery store check-out system asks you to donate to (I’d recommend saving that money and making a single larger donation to a charity featured on GiveWell), but it may look like picking up bottles or trash along the street you already walk down every day. It may look like increasing your recurring donation by an additional $5. It may look like making personal choices that add a little extra cost, but reduce energy use, plastic use, or single use item consumption. We can think about charity on a marginal level, encourage others to do so, and that will help build a spirit of looking for those marginal charity wins. They may not change the world, but they might help set up a culture and system that will.

On Charity, Evolution, and Potential Blind Spots

“Spontaneous generosity may not be the most effective way to improve human welfare on a global scale, but it’s effective where our ancestors needed it to be: at finding mates and building a strong network of allies.” Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson include this quote in their book The Elephant in the Brain when looking at our typical behaviors for donating money and the excuses we have for making donations. Our behaviors don’t always match the expectations we might have if we were donating money for the reasons we claimed to be donating.

 

At its base, the argument is that making donations is about impressing others to increase our own status and make it more likely that we will attract a mate and pass along our genetic information. The main thesis of the book is that we deceive ourselves with the reasons for our actions, and actually act in much more self-interested ways than we would like to admit, so that we can have a better chance of finding a mate and continuing our genetic line.

 

Like charitable giving, where sometimes we really do make donations to help the world, the stated reasons for doing what we do are sometimes legitimate and accurate, but often times they don’t account for the whole story. We claim to make donations to improve the world, but we often just make small donations impulsively when people are watching. We want to impress them with our generosity and resources, and we want to raise our social status and attract a mate.

 

If there is one thing that I would say I am most likely to be wrong about, it is the extent to which I believe our tribal ancestry shaped our evolution (especially our cognitive evolution). I look at most things and consider how they made sense and how they may have originated in small tribal groups. This seems to work well when considering charity, but I may be overly reliant on this explanation and miss other factors. For now, however, with backing from research presented in books like The Elephant in the Brain, self-interested behavior emerging from small tribal groups will be the basis from which my theories of human behavior and interaction begin.

Well Known Charities

Another interesting consideration about charitable giving addressed in The Elephant in the Brain has  to do with which charities we chose to donate large sums of money to. If part of our charitable donations is intended to impress other people and show them how generous and caring we are, then we want to make sure everyone understands how good our donation is.

 

As an example, I have an automatic recurring donation set up with the Against Malaria Foundation. If I wanted to tell someone about the charitable donations that I do and convince them that what I was doing was meaningful, I would have to convey to them what exactly malaria is, what the foundation does, and why it is effective. Just saying that I donate to the Against Malaria Foundation may not resonate with people the way that me telling them that I was donating to the Children’s Leukemia Support Network would. Malaria is not common in the United States and most people probably don’t understand how debilitating yet preventable it can be. Many people in the United States have heard, however, about Leukemia and probably know it is a type of cancer. Many people also probably have experience in their families of cancer (of one form or another), and know how devastating it can be. Attaching our donations to a terrible disease that people have experience with and trying to support a population such as children is a much easier sell in some regards than convincing people to donate to a charity aimed at malaria which impacts people living far away.

 

Simler and Hanson write, “Original research generates private information about which charities are worthy, but in order to signal how prosocial we are, we need to donate to charities that are publicly known to be worthy.” This leads us to donate to the Children’s Leukemia Support Network, even though the charity’s entire existence is a scam, rather than the Against Malaria Foundation which GiveWell identifies as one of the most effective charities.

 

The important thing is that we don’t really do much background with our donations and set out primarily to make big donations to well known charities that tackle things that we think we, or people close to us, might face directly. We want to feel a warm glow about our donations, and we want people to see our donations and immediately recognize what a positive difference we are making. Smaller but more effective charities that address less well known causes are left behind in favor of the bigger more well known charities, even if we could have a bigger impact on the world by making a donation to the smaller charity that people don’t immediately recognize.

 

Why Don't We Care About People Living Far Away?

In human societies, it is quite OK to be biased toward local rather than foreign or distant concerns. We care a lot about our own family, care a little less about our neighborhood, care less about the people on the other side of town, care less about people across our state, less about people in other states, and much much less about people in other countries or on other continents. Our minds really only seem to have the capacity to fully care about those things in our immediate vicinity, pushing the worries and troubles of others out of our thoughts. When we consider charity, we like to put ourselves first, thinking of things we can do in our community before we consider things we can do outside of our community (not always but in general). The highest impact use of our resources (such as charitable donations) can often come from people who live far away, where our money can have greater purchasing power and make a greater marginal benefit for the recipient.

 

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson look at this phenomenon in their book The Elephant in the Brain. They specifically consider how this plays out for our leadership, “We want leaders who look out for their immediate communities, rather than people who need help in far-off places. In a sense, we want them to be parochial. In some situations, it borders on antisocial to be overly concerned with the welfare of distant strangers.”

 

In a sense, it is easy to understand why we are concerned with the people in our community. If we make a big effort to help the homeless in our own city, then we might not have to see any homeless or deal with any panhandlers. But in another sense, it can be harmful to only focus on the people in our own communities. If we can make relatively small investments to help reduce famine in a distant country, then it may prevent a major crisis that leads to refugee flows back into our own country.
My concern is that as we move forward on this planet, we will need to find ways to think of ourselves beyond our local communities. We will face challenges that require human responses on a global scale, and if we are limited by tribal thinking, then we will not be able to successfully cope with these problems of enormous magnitude. Somehow we have to recognize that our brains are biased toward local present needs, threats, and dangers, and think beyond ourselves, our communities, and our current moment.

Charitable Advertisements

Charitable behavior says something about us. It is a way for us to advertise ourselves to the world in a discrete manner, so that everyone can see us and take away a message without us having to tell each person something about ourselves in a direct manner. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in The Elephant in the Brain, “The most obvious thing we advertise is wealth, or in the case of volunteer work, spare time.”

It seems strange that we would use charity in this way. I hear arguments from time to time that we should just have higher taxes and use government systems and structures to address social problems. As a change to the current system, we could build more government agencies and provide more support for the kinds of programs and functions that we currently ask non-profits and charities to assist with. A frequent argument against this idea is that it would be inefficient and we couldn’t rely on government to consistently address the kinds of problems that charities and non-profits pop up to address. An argument that I don’t hear very often, but that I think plays a role, is that we would not be able to signal our generosity and extra wealth if we just expanded taxes and the role of government.

“In effect, charitable behavior says to our audiences, I have more resources than I need to survive; I can give them away without worry,” continue Simler and Hanson. The fact that our donations are often public and are often directed to causes that make us feel warm and fuzzy are evidence that we are not really using our donations to try to solve real problems. Asking the government to step in and play a bigger role might really address the problems that are out there, but it wouldn’t give us the warm fuzzy feeling we are looking for, and wouldn’t allow us to advertise to others about how charitable we are. This is why it is so hard to say no to people soliciting donations at grocery stores. We don’t know anything about the charitable cause they are asking us to support, but if we don’t take the chance to advertise how generous we are, we inadvertently advertise how inconsiderate we might be, or how little resources we have to spare. These little charitable behaviors end up being more about ourselves than about the good we are trying to do.

Motivated to Appear Generous

One of the big challenges in life is being content with ourselves and our work without needing others to notice the good things we have done. As social creatures we want acknowledgement, praise, and approval from our fellow humans, so simply being good or doing good on our own doesn’t seem to satisfy us in the way we need. We all recognize and understand that we should be content without someone patting us on the head to tell us good job, but nevertheless, we pursue social approval all the time.


Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson look at this type of behavior within our charitable donations in their book The Elephant in the Brain. They write, “Griskevicius calls this phenomenon blatant benevolence. Patrick West calls it conspicuous compassion. The idea that we’re motivated to appear generous, not simply to be generous, because we get social rewards only for what others notice. In other words, charity is an advertisement, a way of showing off.”


As a child, I used to seek approval and gratitude from my mother in a similarly conspicuous way. If I did a chore like vacuuming, I would leave the vacuum out so that my mother would see that I did something. She would tell me to put the vacuum away and be a little frustrated, but at least I could be sure that she knew that I did something good.


These direct appeals for attention, praise, and recognition are frowned upon. We don’t like the person at the gym water fountain who over-plays how out of breath they are and tells us how hard that last set of squats with all that weight was. We don’t like the person in the office that goes out of their way to show us how long the report they wrote was. As adults, it is harder to get away with obvious gestures that are designed to get people to notice the good things we do.


Our charitable uses of money or time are a way to get around this. We can publicly donate a large amount of money, we can save our money for donations in public settings such as charity auctions, and we can make sure that everyone sees our Facebook photo about how blessed we feel to be able to give back by volunteering. As long as it appears that our main motive is to do something good, we can get away with the same type of bragging or showing off that I did as a child when I made it super obvious that I had done my chores.

Donating to Faces

In the United States there is a lot of wealth and a lot resources that are directed toward charity. One problem, however, is that the people who are the most in need of charity are generally in developing countries and economies on the other side of the globe. Those counties and individuals, where our donations from the United States could go the furthest, don’t manage to capture as much of the donation market as we might think they would given the scale of need and potential impact of our donations. Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain call this the Relatability Problem of charitable donations.

 

They write, “we’re much more likely to help someone we can identify-a specific individual with a name, a face, and a story. First investigated by Thomas Schelling in 1968, this phenomenon has come to be known as the identifiable victim effect. The corresponding downside, of course, is that we’re less likely to help victims who aren’t identifiable.”

 

We might hear a news story about millions of people in a distant country being displaced by a major natural disaster. We might see lines of people trying to flee a destroyed town or countryside, but the further from us they are in terms of both distance and culture, the less likely we are to feel a burning desire to help them. I think that part of this comes from the rational side of our brains. We want to be sure that if we expend effort, energy, or resources, that we can see the final product to know that something good happened. If we can see a single person in need who received a meal, a place to sleep, or had a home repaired as a result of our charity, then we will be more likely to make some type of donation to help, especially if we can see something in ourselves in their situation. When we just see statistics about how many people are in need and how many dollars helped however many people, we are less sure that our efforts really made a difference and actually applied to the problem at hand. This feels like it makes rational sense, but as I have detailed previously, our charity is usually not very rational to begin with, and our brains end up driving our charity to less rational purposes in this potential rational aim.

 

Peter Singer gives an example of this in his book The Most Good You Can Do. If we see a campaign for the  Make-a-Wish Foundation to help one specific child with a terminal illness have an amazing day, we will likely feel incredible empathy for the child and we will see an opportunity for us to be part of making something spectacular happen for a child with an unfortunate and unavoidably short life. We see exactly who we are helping, we can read or watch a story about why we should help this child (and others like them), and how our donation will help them directly. At the same time, however, the CDC reports that in 2016 445,000 people died from Malaria, a preventable mosquito born parasitic infection.

 

We could make a $250 donation to the Make-a-Wish Foundation and our money would go toward some things that help provide a fantastic day for the one child whose story we can see on TV or read about. We could alternatively make a $250 donation to the against malaria and provide about 50 anti-malarial bed-nets to children. Somewhere inside us, the statistics about bed-nets doesn’t weigh as heavily as helping the one child whose story we saw on TV, even though we are helping 50 children and potentially saving the lives of the children by ensuring they have something to prevent Malarial infections. Its hard to say how much our donation does for the Make-A-Wish foundation, but we know pretty well what our donation toward bed-nets does.

 

Global charities helping those where our resources could go the furthest are hampered by our empathetic drives to help those with whom we relate to. We first want to help those who look like us, have similar backgrounds, and speak our same language. After that we are willing to try to help those unknown people creating the statistics that fail to move us to action. We don’t donate because we want to make the most good, we donate because we feel compelled to help people who look like part of our tribe.

Donations and Visible Peer Pressure

I have never been super comfortable with fund raiser activities, but there is a reason we go through so much effort with fundraising when we are parts of groups, organizations, and cash-strapped clubs. “Up to 95% of all donations are given in response to a solicitation,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain citing a 2005 literature review by Rene Bekkers. We don’t part with our money on a whim (when it comes to donations) and we prefer to wait until someone asks us for money. The authors describe why by writing, “By helping donors advertise their generosity, charities incentivize more donations.” Having another person directly ask for money ensures that at least one other person will see the donor’s charitable action and be aware of how generous they are.

 

In the quotes from Hanson and Simler we see two factors from my post yesterday that influence whether or not we make donations: visibility and peer pressure.

 

When I am grocery shopping by myself, I have no problem saying no to scouts or charity groups soliciting donations as the door or to cashier/checkout prompts for donations to certain causes. When I am with my wife, however, it is always a little harder to say no because I don’t want someone I care about to see me as heartless and inconsiderate. Most of the time I have no way to know if the charity is effective, if the person collecting the donation is reliably going to give my donation to the charity, or how much need there really is for my donation. I am simply stopped in my tracks and asked to make a donation, even if it is a small and ultimately meaningless donation.

 

To me, it often doesn’t feel as though I am being asked for money, but that I am being asked to signal my virtue as a generous person.

 

It is easy for us to say no when no one will see us, but when our act is visible and when another person directly appeals to us, it is hard to say no. We end up feeling guilty if we don’t make a token donation.

 

If our charitable activity was more about helping those in need and doing good in the world, we would not have these constant virtue tests at local grocery stores. We also wouldn’t have bricks bearing our names at the places we back with our donations. We would not have platinum, gold, and silver sponsors at charity events and open charity auctions would not happen.

 

Our donations are often about doing something good to support a meaningful cause, but they are also often about making sure people know we are the kind of people who donate to nice sounding causes. Our donations are a way to show our virtue, even if our donation is effectively a throwaway. We donate more when people know we donate, and rather than actively giving away our resources we wait until we are asked by someone else, guaranteeing that at least one other person knows how good we are. To really make a difference with our charity, however, we should seek out automatic ways to make donations that have a big impact. Our name can still be attached, but we should at least make sure we donate not because we will feel guilty by not donating, but because we want to direct our money to the place where it will make the biggest impact.

Five Factors To Consider Regarding Our Donation Behavior

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin simler and Robin Hanson ask just how much of our behavior is influenced by our self-interest. As an explanation for why we do what we do, simply saying that we did something because we gained some material good, gained more social status, or received some type of pleasurable outcome is generally accepted, but ignored. It is clear that we have self-interest in doing things that we benefit from, but in many ways, we like to ignore self-interest and we prefer to explain our behaviors with more complex rationalizations for why we do what we do. This motivated reasoning, however, creates models that account for many factors without acknowledging the main factor that we would all rather ignore, the elephant in the room (brain), our self-interest.

 

Simler and Hanson investigate charitable donations in the framework of self-interest and consider the warm glow feeling that we get when we make charitable donations, help the person on the street, and generally do good things for others. They look beyond simply “we do things because it makes us feel good” and ask questions to get to a deeper level understanding of human behavior:

 

“The much more interesting and important question is why it feels good when we donate to charity. Digging beneath the shallow psychological motive (pursuing happiness), what deeper incentives are we responding to?

 

To figure this out, we’re going to examine five factors that influence our charitable behavior:
  1. Visibility. We give more when we’re being watched.
  2. Peer pressure. Our giving responds strongly to social influences.
  3. Proximity. We prefer to help people locally rather than globally.
  4. Relatability. We give more when the people we help are identifiable (via faces and/or stories) and give less in response to numbers and facts.
  5. Mating Motive. We’re more generous when primed with a mating motive.
This list is far from comprehensive, but taken together, these factors help explain why we donate so inefficiently, and also why we feel that warm glow when we donate.”

 

I have been writing a lot recently about charitable giving. Part of the reason why is because I see great potential in the resources at the disposal of the average American. We have a lot of wealth relative to the rest of the world, a lot of time relative to previous generations, and a lot of information available to us. However, rather than using our wealth, our time, and the information available to us to maximize our lives, make the world a better place, and solve pressing problems, most people waste their resources. I have continually been thinking about what I consider The Stupid Economy where we feel pressured to buy things we don’t really want to keep up with and impress people we don’t really care much about, and use our resources in pointless and meaningless ways.

 

Our world today has incredibly bright people working at meaningless jobs. We use a lot of our human potential, our creative energy and brain power, and our money to get people to drink sugary water. We invest massive amounts of attention in celebrity news and we celebrate technological inventions like iPhones without applying our hunger for technological improvement to other problems that could potentially save more lives or do more to protect the planet from human caused problems – like trash in our oceans.

 

I want to encourage society to move in a direction that is more considerate and careful with our resource use. I want to be part of something that builds toward a society that has a smart economy, where instead of complaining about the diminishing purchasing power of our society while simultaneously buying $100 jeans we celebrate the resources we have and put them toward real use to create sustainable development. If we are going to set out to do good in the world, we have to understand what Simler and Hanson describe in the quote above. We have to understand how our rationality is derailed, and we need to understand why it is important to be truly effective when we try to do good with what we have.