Effective duty

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
16 October, 2020

People are more careful when spending their own money than when spending on behalf of others. This truism is especially relevant in election years, but it applies more broadly.

Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers were keen to understand why people care more about the effectiveness of their spending when that spending helps themselves and their families, as opposed to helping strangers. The results were published earlier this week in Nature: Human Behaviour.

The researchers gave experimental subjects some money and an opportunity to multiply the amount by saving the money, giving the money to a family member, or by giving the money to charities or strangers.

The recipients were keen to put the money into savings accounts, or to the benefit of their kin, when the donated amount was multiplied by the researcher. The effectiveness of giving money to one’s future self, or to one’s family, mattered. But not so much when donating to charities or strangers. Donations to others were about the same regardless of any multiplier.

The result may be depressing, but not particularly surprising. Yet the reason was intriguing.

In another round of experiments, donors were rewarded by another experimental subject: an observer who saw the amount donated, and if the experimenter multiplied the donation. Observers rewarded donors for their donation amount, but not for its effectiveness. In a separate survey, observers’ judgements of the donor’s character also varied only by the donation’s amount, not by its effectiveness.

To put it simply, people are more wired in social settings to care about being seen to do good than whether their actions are truly helpful. Effort earns a social reward, not the effectiveness. 

Successful electoral campaigns play to those hard-to-overcome features of human nature. In a better world, charitable donations would be driven by effective altruism, and voting would be based on which policies do the most good towards the ends folk most care about.

The lesson? Make every ballot an effective one. Weigh up which promised policies have the best chance of improving outcomes, or at least not doing harm. The policies offered by any party will not substantially improve until voters start rewarding effectiveness rather than intentions.

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