Nudging: The unexpected impact on observers’ inference of donors’ prosocial behavior
Xiaoyue Wu and Liyin Jin (Fudan University), 2020, 48(1), e8620.

Nudging is a relatively new term referring to the idea that individuals can be “nudged” toward positive behavior, using positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to achieve compliance rather than education, legislation, or enforcement.

If a participant has been nudged to make donations, is their intrinsic motivation undermined in the eyes of an observer? The authors examined this proposal in the context of three studies, looking at nudging, donation behavior, and the resulting impressions on an observer. The observer participants thus judged the perceived motive of a donor’s behavior not only from the behavior itself, but also according to whether it was a product of nudging.

In one study participants were told that a campaign was being organized by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund and aimed to help children living in poverty in China. Participants were given two options: “I want to donate,” and “I don’t want to donate,” and were also provided with information about a donor who had donated to the campaign a minute earlier. Participants responded to a three-item measure to assess the previous donor’s intrinsic motivation. A sample item is “This donor had a genuine passion for helping children.”  Results show that participants doubted the intrinsic motivation of the donor when the prosocial behavior had been nudged with the “I want to donate” default option.

However, the authors state that the behavioral consequences are unclear. They ask if donors will continue to donate even though, through nudging, their prosocial action is undermined. I can affirm that—for me—yes, nudging is successful in getting me to donate. Nevertheless, I see reason for caution by charitable organizations, because endless email campaigns, targeting people who have already acted on the motivation to donate, can fatigue their supporters. Future research would be fascinating if it could explore limits on donation nudging, donor fatigue, and how to expand motivation further afield.

Katharine Samuel | Copyeditor
Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal