Using Defaults to Induce a Charitable Contribution

We all know about the power of defaults in everyday behavior and even in science.

Here’s a fun example. The following appeared in my inbox the other day:

Dear Dr. Gelman,

*** greatly appreciates your service as a member of the ad hoc Committee that considered the appointment of ***. In recognition of your contribution, *** offers an honorarium of $500.

In order for me to begin processing this payment, I need to request your social security number as well as your tax reporting address (often this is your home address). Attached to this email, please find a W-9 form for you to fill out. You may scan this form once it has been signed and email it back to me, or you may fax it to my attention to ***.

I understand that these are sensitive pieces of information and not to be exchanged lightly. Please let me know if you are not interested in receiving this payment, or if you would like this payment donated to the organization of your choice, it would be greatly appreciated.

Indeed, by the time I got to the end of these paragraphs, I was thinking: yeah, taking the money would be a real pain, filling out forms. We give money each year to charity anyway, so why not just have that organization donate the money directly. That would save me from the trouble or writing a check, keeping track for my taxes, etc. So I followed their suggestion and asked them to donate.

The default—and my being aware of donation as a default behavior—made all the difference. And it did make a difference. Our charitable contributions are sporadic, we don’t really keep track, so in expectation I suspect this represents a real transfer of $500 to Hospitalito Atitlán.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.