Works in Progress

Unplanned Giving

If you’re paid to do good, does it count?

By Marcus A. Banks | October 7, 2020
401(K) 2012/Flickr
401(K) 2012/Flickr

One day, you receive an email from your electric company announcing that all customers who install solar panels on their homes will receive a 50 percent reduction in fees for the next five years—the panels will be even be thrown in for free. You may never have considered solar power before, but suddenly you are a convert. A little voice in your head pipes up—shouldn’t you have cared about the environment all along? Why did it take cold hard cash to make you care? So, when the electric company sends a second notice, encouraging you to donate some of your newfound savings to local environmental causes, you jump at the chance. But why?

New research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School suggests that people willingly forego financial rewards they have earned legitimately, if doing so makes them feel better about themselves. The researchers call this “motivation laundering.”

“There seems to be a pretty universal need to feel like you’ve done the right thing for the right reason,” says lead researcher Erika Kirgios. In many cases, people perform charitable acts in response to financial incentives, but they don’t want to damage their self-esteem by admitting that. Seeking to square this circle, Kirgios and her colleagues designed two experiments.

In the first, 763 members of the online service mTurk – through which people can earn money for completing various online tasks – were paid two dollars each to write an encouraging letter to a child with cancer who would be in the hospital during the holidays. (Two dollars is a premium rate on the app for a task like this, Kirgios notes; normally, people would get 50 cents.) After the letters were written, researchers asked some of the participants to return some or all of the money they had earned, with no other incentive provided. Others who were asked to return money were told that the experience they had gained in writing letters outweighed the need for financial compensation. A third group asked to return the money was told that boosting a child’s spirits ought to be considered its own reward.

People in the intrinsic reward group returned the most money of the three—47 cents on average. People in all groups returned some money, though, even the group without any prompt. Researchers deemed any return of money, whatever the amount, to be motivation laundering.

In the second experiment, 18,000 members of 24 Hour Fitness enrolled in a four-week program that offered money, topping out around six dollars, for going to the gym regularly. Every participant received an email after the four weeks were up, asking them to claim their earnings or donate them all to the incentive program’s coffers. Some participants received a nudge reminding them that the incentive program had kickstarted their fitness habit, while others were just asked to donate money. People receiving the extra nudge were more likely to donate, although the difference between groups was small.

Marcia Baron, a philosopher and ethicist at Indiana University in Bloomington, argues that paying someone to write a letter to a sick child taints the experience. “There is plenty of goodness in the world,” Baron says, and many people do altruistic things for no external reward at all. The very act of taking the money in the first place, in Baron’s view, makes it impossible to rehabilitate your motivations later on.

Kirgios, however, emphasizes that many people complete mTurk tasks as a crucial source of income, and that experiment participants were “simply showing up to work” when they wrote their letters. That people returned any money at all in this circumstance, Kirgios argues, demonstrates that motivation laundering is not only possible—it’s very much in play.


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