Menus Subscribe Search
(PHOTO: WELLPHOTO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: WELLPHOTO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Bloodthirsty Charities

• March 14, 2013 • 12:05 PM

(PHOTO: WELLPHOTO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

When it comes to blood donation, nothing matters more than message.

Have you given blood lately? Donated to a local non-profit? Do you remember the appeal that moved you to open your vein or pocketbook?

Odds are, it was a dire message (“Help prevent a needless death”) rather than a cheerful one (“Help save an innocent life”). That’s the key finding from a collaborative study between the Red Cross and researchers at Northwestern and the University of Virginia. The emotional psychology of a charitable call to action has everything to do with its efficacy, authors Eileen Chou and J. Keith Murnighan report, and humanity’s well-documented “loss aversion” is a far more powerful motivator than “gain promotion” in giving, too.

Charitable giving—whether dollars or blood cells—has fallen steeply in the recession, and non-profits across the country are struggling to keep their balance sheets in the black and their blood banks in the red. (Groan. —Ed.) Chou and Murnighan did an informal survey of the nation’s top-ten charities, and found that while overall donations were off 11 percent in 2010, not every organization was hemorrhaging funds. (Double groan. —Ed.) Upon closer inspection, the non-profit world’s winners and losers differed in how they framed their public appeals.

In a paper that appears this month in PLOS One, the authors note that “the appeals of all of the six top charities that experienced donation decreases stressed their recipients’ need for gains,” such as “To continue saving lives” (The American Cancer Society) and “Doing the most good” (Salvation Army).

“In sharp contrast,” they continue, “the appeals of the four top charities that experienced donation increases all focused on their recipients’ losses if help was not forthcoming,” with calls to “prevent [children] from going hungry” (Feed the Children) and “reduce poverty in America” (Catholic Charities).

The emotional psychology at work here is known as “prospect theory,” which “suggests that the pain of losing is about twice as strong the joy of gaining the same amount.” Humans, in other words, are risk averse, and perfectly irrational when it comes to losses and gains: give a test subject $10 to gamble in an experimental setting, and when she walks away with only five, she’ll beat herself up for taking a stupid bet—despite the fact that she’s still $5 richer than when she walked into the room.

Chou and Murnighan argue that ad agencies and public health officials already rely on prospect theory and loss aversion to sharpen their messaging. (Women who are warned of the dangers of not performing self breast-exams, for example, are better at remembering to check for lumps than women who are reminded of a self-exam’s benefits.) Why shouldn’t charities target the same quirk of behavioral psychology?

The authors, in partnership with the Red Cross, decided to test the impact of “loss” vs. “gain” messaging in a real-world setting: a blood drive on the Northwestern campus. Fewer than two in five Americans are even eligible to donate blood, they write, and just ten percent of those can, do. Even so, “An increase of only 1% more of the American population giving blood every year would reduce national blood shortages to zero.” (Yes, you read that right.) Instead, national blood shortages are a chronic problem.

The subjects of Chou and Murnighan’s study were Northwestern’s 3,500 undergrads, all of whom received, via email, one of three appeals: a control message (containing only the date location of the drive); a loss-aversion message (“Don’t delay! Help prevent someone from dying!”); or a gain-promotion message (“Act now. Help save someone’s life!”).

Loss-aversion targets were reminded that “Every second, two people could die waiting for blood,” while their gain-promotion classmates were told, “Every day, many people can be saved by donated blood.

When the Bloodmobile arrived on campus, students who’d received the “prevent a death” message were two-thirds more likely to make a donation than students who’d received either the “save a life” or control messages.

While overall student participation was discouraging, hovering around 1 percent, Chou and Murnighan observe that the strategic messaging had a clear and significant effect. At the same time, it was free, effortless, and scalable, requiring only a bit of Psych 101 and careful attention to language.

Indeed, with non-profits’ budgets still thin, but email and social media ascendant, there may be no better way to wring a few extra dollars—or platelets—out of would-be donors.

Kevin Charles Redmon
Kevin Charles Redmon is a journalist and critic. He lives in Washington, D.C.

More From Kevin Charles Redmon

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.