Big Think Interview With Sheena Iyengar
Question: How did you come to study choice?
Sheena Iyengar: I think I was always informally thinking about choice from when I was a very young child because I was born to Sikh immigrant parents, so I was constantly going back and forth between a Sikh household and an American outside world, so I was going back and forth between a very traditional Sikh home in which you had to follow the Five K’s. You know never cut your hair, always carry around a comb, never take off your underwear other than… I mean never take off your underwear even if it was in the shower, dress very conservatively and so I was living, growing up in a very traditional household and yet at the same time I was going to school in the United States where I was taught the importance of personal preference, so at home it was all about learning your duties and responsibilities whereas in school it was all about well you get to decide what you want you want to eat. You get to decide how you’re going to look and what you’re going to be when you grow up and when people learned that my parents actually had an arranged marriage people thought that was the most horrific thing on earth. I mean how could anybody allow their marriage of all things to be prescribed by somebody else? And you know I went home and they seemed… my parents seemed normal. They didn’t seem to feel like somehow they had been victims of some Nazi camp or something. So it was constantly going back and forth between these two cultures that kept raising the question, well, how important is personal freedom? And I think that has always been of interest to me.
Then, the other thing that affected my interest in choices growing up was the fact that I was going blind and that meant that there were lots of questions that constantly kept arising about how much choices I actually could have. So on the one hand in school you’re teachers are constantly telling you that you can be whatever it is you want to be as long as you put your mind and heart to it, and yet at the same time I was also getting the clear message of, well, what can you do really? I mean can you walk to school on your own? Can you study science? Can you study math? Can you go to a normal school? Do you need to go to a special school? What is going to become of you when you grow up? Are you going to have to live on social security and SSI? Are you going to be able to shave your legs? Are you going to be able to get married? So it was constantly thinking about both choice in terms of possibilities–I mean because choice is the thing that is supposed to enable you to be whatever it is you want to be–and yet, at the same time you have to think about choice in terms of its limitations. And I think that too ended up affecting a lot of the different research questions that I later asked was really was about well to what extent… How do we balance choice as possibility and choice as limitations?
Question: Do you approach choice differently from people who have sight?
Sheena Iyengar: I don’t know if I approach choice any differently than the sighted people do, but what I am very cognizant of is that choice does have limits and because of that I really try to take advantage of the domains in which I do have choice. And when I do have choice I try to be very picky about... or shall I say choosey about when I choose. I don’t automatically decide that I must be the one to choose or that it’s important for me to make every choice in my life. I pick what are my priorities and I limit those priorities to less than five in my life and really in those particular areas put in the energy to try to make good choices. I think of choosing as a… both a fun and an effortful activity and I think of choice as something that in order for you to really get what you want out of it you have to put a lot into it and so I’m only willing to do that for a few different things and for the rest I really just try to either satisfy, come up with a simple rule or let somebody else make the choice.
Question: How did you conduct your first study on choice?
Sheena Iyengar: So when I was a PhD student at Stanford University I used to frequent this grocery store called Draeger’s and you know it was… It’s always a thrilling experience to go into a place that offers you a lot of choice. You know it’s like it reminds you of when you’re a kid and you go to the amusement park and whether it be Disneyworld or Six Flags you know that thrilling moment when you first enter and you know you’ve got all these possibilities for the day and it’s really a… it’s a wonderful feeling. So I used to go to this store called Draeger’s and you had a little bit of that same feeling because this was a store that offered you so many varieties, things you’d never contemplated before, you know like 250 mustards and vinegars and over 500 different kinds of fruits and vegetables, or over 2 dozen different types of water and this is at a time when you know most of us drank tap water, so I used to go to this store and examine all the varieties and we used to marvel at all the choices out there, but I found that I rarely bought anything and I kind of thought that was kind of curious. I mean, they had things that the other grocery stores didn’t have and yet I never bought anything. And so one day I went to the manager and I asked him whether his model was working and he said, “Well, haven’t you seen how many customers we have in this store?” And yes indeed I had. I mean it was definitely attracting a lot of customers, even attracting tourist buses that would land up at this store and people would go through the store and marvel at all the options, even sometimes take photographs of the various aisles. So the manager agreed to let me do a little experiment where we put out a little tasting booth next to the entry. We either put out 6 different flavors of jam or 24 different flavors of jam and we looked at 2 things. First, in what case were people more likely to buy a jar of jam? The first thing we looked at, in what case were people more likely to be attracted to the jar or jam, so in which case are people more likely to stop when they saw the display of jams and what we found was that more people stopped when there were 24 jams. About 60% of the people stopped when we had 24 jams on display and then at the times when we had 6 different flavors of jam out on display only 40% of the people actually stopped, so more people were clearly attracted to the larger varieties of options, but then when it came down to buying, so the second thing we looked at is in what case were people more likely to buy a jar of jam. What we found was that of the people who stopped when there were 24 different flavors of jam out on display only 3% of them actually bought a jar of jam whereas of the people who stopped when there were 6 different flavors of jam 30% of them actually bought a jar of jam. So, if you do the math, people were actually 6 times more likely to buy a jar of jam if they had encountered 6 than if they encountered 24, so what we learned from this study was that while people were more attracted to having more options, that’s what sort of got them in the door or got them to think about jam, when it came to choosing time they were actually less likely to make a choice if they had more to choose from than if they had fewer to choose from. And that really ended up starting an entire area of research where we began to look at "Why is that?" And a large part of that has to do with the fact that when people have a lot of options to choose from they don’t know how to tell them apart. They don’t know how to keep track of them. They start asking themselves "Well which one is the best? Which one would be good for me?" And all those questions are much easier to ask if you’re choosing from six than when you’re choosing from 24 and if you look at the marketplace today most often we have a lot more than 24 of things to choose from. In fact, even in that store Draeger’s they had 348 different kinds of jam actually in the jam aisle. And what we found over about, say, 10 years of research is that as the number of choices actually increase people are less likely to make a choice and sometimes they do this even when it’s really bad for them. Like, people are less likely to invest in their retirement when they have more options in their 401K plans than when they have fewer. People are, even when they do make a choice, they’re more likely to chooses things that are not as good for them. You know, like, they’ll make worse financial decisions for them if they’re choosing from a lot of options than if they’re choosing from a few options. If they have more options they’re more likely to avoid stocks and put all their money in money market accounts, which doesn’t even grow at the rate of inflation. Also if they choose from more options than fewer options they’re less satisfied with what they choose and that is true whether they’re choosing chocolates or which job offer to accept.
Question: Are all animals capable of making choices, or just those with a higher cognitive ability?
Sheena Iyengar: What we share with animals is a desire for choice. It’s a desire to have control over our life and a desire to live and use choice as a way in which we can facilitate our ability to live and that is something we really were born with. You know, whether it be humans or animals. So even humans–before we can speak or we can understand a baby’s cognition–they’re already showing us signs that they want choice. You know, you take a little infant and you turn on the music mobile on their crib and you find that if you give them a music mobile which turns on automatically versus a music mobile in which–if by chance their little legs or their little hands accidentally touches it–turns on they’re so much more excited if by chance it turns on because they touched it, so that desire for control over their environment is… really appears from very early on and if you look at children’s first words, “no, yes.” My child’s first word was "more," but and it’s all about, “I want.” “I’m going to tell you what I want and what I don’t want.” It’s about my desire to express my preferences. And that is really innate. Now to what…? How we teach people to make choices and the things they’re going to make choices over–that is culturally learned.
Question: Americans today have an abundance of choices. Is that a good thing?
Sheena Iyengar: Well certainly not having any choice–having your entire life dictated by others... You know, like, none of us would choose–no matter where we are in the world–would choose to you know become a member of Orwell’s "Nineteen Eighty-Four" world, but how much choice is really the question. I mean we know that some choice makes you better off than no choice. Now do we get better off if we go from a lot of choice versus a few choices? And there I think the answer is much, much, much more complicated. If you truly have expertise–and expertise can be say a chess master who has really mastered something or an artist or a musician of some sort you know if you give a jazz musician... Once the jazz musician learns all the fundamentals they can keep track of a lot of choices in an instant. A chess master can keep track of more choices than the number of stars in the galaxy within an instant, but these are people that have truly learned and mastered the choices that they have and how to deal with those choices over a very, very long period of training, so essentially what they’re really doing is ruling out all the irrelevant choices and only zeroing in on the most relevant, useful choices at the moment. So most of the time when we are confronted by more, rather than a few, choices we’re often novices and so we don’t really know how to differentiate these various options. We also don’t always know what we want. And in those cases it can actually make us worse off because it’s actually easier to figure out what you want and to figure out how the options differ if you have about a handful of them than if you have a hundred of them.
Question: Is choice cultural?
Sheena Iyengar: Well, you find that in certain cultures we… they don’t put as much of an emphasis in expanding their choices, so that, you know, one of the things that I learned when I was in Japan way back in the 1990’s and there were all these quarrels happening between the U.S. and Japan about allowing more American products into the Japanese market. I would go to these Japanese stores and you’d see, like, two kinds of toothpaste or five different kinds of potato chips. You know, or three kinds of ice cream bars and you’d see this and like this… okay they could clearly benefit from some more choices and I remember having these discussions with the Japanese because they you know they often like to go to Hawaii for vacation because it was definitely much cheaper for them and I would ask them, “So when you go to Hawaii, you know do eat all these other things?” And it turned out when they went to Hawaii they would go straight and buy the same thing that they would buy in Japan. They just got it cheaper, which they liked. And so they would still eat the red bean ice cream or the green tea ice cream, but they didn’t really take advantage of the variety and it wasn’t clear that they cared. I mean it wasn’t that they sat around thinking oh gosh I needed more choices in my grocery stores the way I had come to think about it as an American growing up. So I do think that there are cultural differences in the extent to which we value having more and more choice.
To give you another example, when I was recently in Russia I found that I thought I was going to give these people that I was interviewing a whole bunch of choice in terms of what they could drink while we were chatting. And I put out a good 10 different types of drinks for them and they just said, “Oh, okay, so it’s just one choice.” One choice? I gave you Coke, Pepsi, Ginger Ale, Sprite. They saw that as one choice. Now why was that one choice? Because they felt, well, it was just all soda. I didn’t really give them anymore than one choice, soda or no soda. They didn’t… whereas we put a lot of stock in the differences between soda… I mean we might even go to war as to whether we love Coke or Pepsi and our whole identity is wrapped up in that choice. You know, for the Russians they felt that these minor differences between these various sodas was just hyped up and irrelevant. You know give me choices that are truly different from one another, otherwise they don’t regard them as meaningful choices. There is a different attitude about, you know, how much differentiation there needs to be between our options and how many choices do I need to have in order to make a choice.
Question: Is it better to make decisions rationally or go with your gut?
Sheena Iyengar: We are often in society told to make decisions in one of two ways. We’re either told "Use your gut, just go with how you feel about it and let that guide you," or we’re told to use reason–some very deliberative methodical process of pros and cons and really thinking it through. Most of the time you should use reason, there is no doubt about that because gut often makes us susceptible to lots of different biases, particularly if what you’re deciding is something that you really, that expertise can be brought to bear on it, there is a way in which you can align the odds, so then you should really use reason. About the only time our gut can truly outperform our reason is if we truly have developed a kind of informed intuition. So that means the chess master or someone who has really thought about it and given themselves feedback on a particular activity for at least 10,000 hours or more. About the only question that we would say and this is a big one in our lives that we would say you don’t just use pure reason to decide the answer to is anything that affects your happiness, because then gut and reason answer very different questions. So gut tells you "How do I feel about this right now?" It doesn’t tell me how I feel about it tomorrow or even a few minutes from now. It just tells me how I’m feeling right now. Reason tells me, when I do the pros and cons analysis, how I should feel about it right now and how I should feel about it in 10 years from now and so that the only… So for decisions about happiness you essentially need at least both and probably even more than that, you probably also need to do analysis that doesn’t involve yourself to get at the answer of what will make you happy in 10 years.
Question: Is it better to have more choices when it comes to love?
Sheena Iyengar: What's interesting is that the way we go about finding our marriage partners today is quite different from the way it used to be in this culture. When you look at… I’ve done a number of studies with speed dating and Match.com and what's interesting is that you know we still walk into a speed dating event, you know, thinking about what it is we’re looking for in a mate and so you ask people, like women will say "I’m looking for somebody who is really kind and sincere and smart and funny." And guys will say looks matter, but they’ll also say things like "Well, she should be smart and kind." And you know those are... so the typical responses and if you give them just a few options, like five or six, then they will rate them on the very characteristics that they said were really important to them. You know if they said kindness or funniness was really most important to them then they will be more likely to say yes to the person that they thought was kind and funny. Now if you expand their choice set. Say you give them 20 different speed dates, everything goes out the window. Everybody starts choosing in accordance with looks because that becomes the easiest criteria by which to weed out all the options and decide "So who am I going to say yes to?"
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Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.
How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.
- A study finds asking for donations by appealing to the donor's self-interest may result in more money than appealing to their better nature.
- Those who received an appeal to self-interest were both more likely to give and gave more than those in the control group.
- The effect was most pronounced for those who hadn't given before.
Even the best charities with the longest records of doing great fundraising work have to spend some time making sure that the next donation checks will keep coming in. One way to do this is by showing potential donors all the good things the charity did over the previous year. But there may be a better way.
A new study by researchers in the United States and Australia suggests that appealing to the benefits people will receive themselves after a donation nudges them to donate more money than appealing to the greater good.
How to get people to give away free money
The postcards that were sent to different study subjects. The one on the left highlighted benefits to the self, while the one on the right highlighted benefits to others.List et al. / Nature Human Behaviour
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, utilized the Pick.Click.Give program in Alaska. This program allows Alaska residents who qualify for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly payment ranging from $800 to $2000 in recent years, to donate a portion of it to various in-state non-profit organizations.
The researchers randomly assigned households to either a control group or to receive a postcard in the mail encouraging them to donate a portion of their dividend to charity. That postcard could come in one of two forms, either highlighting the benefits to others or the benefits to themselves.
Those who got the postcard touting self-benefits were 6.6 percent more likely to give than those in the control group and gave 23 percent more on average. Those getting the benefits-to-others postcard were slightly more likely to give than those receiving no postcard, but their donations were no larger.
Additionally, the researchers were able to break the subject list down into a "warm list" of those who had given at least once before in the last two years and a "cold list" of those who had not. Those on the warm list, who were already giving, saw only minor increases in their likelihood to donate after getting a postcard in the mail compared to those on the cold list.
Additionally, the researchers found that warm-list subjects who received the self-interest postcard gave 11 percent more than warm-list subjects in the control group. Amazingly, among cold-list subjects, those who received a self-interest postcard gave 39 percent more.
These are substantial improvements. At the end of the study, the authors point out, "If we had sent the benefits to self message to all households in the state, aggregate contributions would have increased by nearly US$600,000."
To put this into perspective, in 2017 the total donations to the program were roughly $2,700,000.
Is altruism dead?
Are all actions inherently self-interested? Thankfully, no. The study focuses entirely on effective ways to increase charitable donations above levels that currently exist. It doesn't deny that some people are giving out of pure altruism, but rather that an appeal based on self-interest is effective. Plenty of people were giving before this study took place who didn't need a postcard as encouragement. It is also possible that some people donated part of their dividend check to a charity that does not work with Pick.Click.Give and were uncounted here.
It is also important to note that Pick.Click.Give does not provide services but instead gives money to a wide variety of organizations that do. Those organizations operate in fields from animal rescue to job training to public broadcasting. The authors note that it is possible that a more specific appeal to the benefits others will receive from a donation might prove more effective than the generic and all-inclusive "Make Alaska Better For Everyone" appeal that they used.
In an ideal world, charity is its own reward. In ours, it might help to remind somebody how warm and fuzzy they'll feel after donating to your cause.