Nicolas Guéguen and Lubomir Lamy placed opaque collection boxes in 14 bakeries in Brittany for two weeks. All the boxes featured the following text in French: “Women students in business trying to organise a humanitarian action in Togo. We are relying on your support”, together with a picture of a young African woman with an infant in her arms. Some boxes had this additional text in French just below the money slot: “DONATING=LOVING”; others had the text “DONATING=HELPING”; whilst others had no further text below the slot. Different box types were placed in different bakeries on different days and the amount of money collected each day was recorded.
The text on the donation boxes made a profound difference. On average, almost twice as much money was raised daily in boxes with the “donating=loving” text, as compared with the “donating=helping” boxes and the boxes with no additional text (€1.04 per day vs. €0.62 and €0.54; the effect size was d=2.09). “Given the high effect-size … we can conclude that evoking love is a powerful technique to enhance people’s altruistic behaviour,” the researchers said. In contrast, the difference in the amount of money left in “donating=helping” boxes and boxes without additional text was not statistically significant.
Guéguen and Lamy think that the word “loving” acts as a prime, activating related concepts such as compassion, support and solidarity, and thereby encourages behaviour consistent with those ideas. Such an explanation would fit the wider literature showing how our motivations and attitudes can be influenced by words and objects without us realising it. For example, one previous study showed how exposure to ageing-related words like “retired” led participants to walk away more slowly after an experiment. Other research found a poster of a pair of eyes on a wall led to greater use of an honesty box in a university canteen. Previous research by Guéguen and Lamy has further shown how asking a male passerby for directions to “Saint Valentine Street” as opposed to “Saint Martin Street” makes them subsequently more likely to help a nearby woman who’s had her phone stolen, presumably because of the automatic activation of romance-related concepts.
Why should the text “donating=helping” not have had a similar beneficial effect on giving behaviour? Guéguen and Lamy think this might be due to a compensatory counter-reaction against words that are perceived as too much like a command. Indeed, in French, the verb “donner” to donate is also used to order someone to do something. However, why this reactance should have happened with “donating=helping” and not with “donating=loving” isn’t entirely clear. Another reason for the impotence of the word “helping”, the researchers said, is its redundancy – it was really just repeating the plea for support in the main text.
The measure of giving was crude, which is a weakness of the study. We don’t know if the “donating=loving” text led more people to donate, or to more generous giving among those people who donated.
“Despite the shortcomings of our study, the results will no doubt be of interest to those involved in philanthropic planning and support assessment in the aresas of corporate giving, nonprofit organisations, charitable foundations, and grants,” the researchers said. “Conducted in a field setting, the experiment demonstrates how a simple, low-cost intervention can increase charitable giving.”
Guéguen, N., and Lamy, L. (2011). The effect of the word “love” on compliance to a request for humanitarian aid: An evaluation in a field setting. Social Influence, 6 (4), 249-258 DOI: 10.1080/15534510.2011.627771
Previously on the Research Digest: How Michael Jackson’s Heal The World really could help heal the world.