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Yale researchers presented scenarios involving Gap's (RED) campaign to subject in a study on altruism.

Charitable acts may backfire, researchers report

by Jani Actman
Jan 16, 2014

If someone volunteers at a charity hoping to reel in a love interest, is that act still viewed as altruistic? Not likely, according to a study published in the January edition of Psychological Science.

Yale University researchers found that people tend to view personal and corporate charitable acts performed for personal gain as less moral than other types of self-interested behavior. They have coined this phenomenon the “tainted-altruism effect.”

“We were interested in how people evaluate these pro-social efforts in situations where the person stands to benefit personally,” said lead author George Newman, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management in New Haven, Conn. “What we found through a number of different experiments is that people seem to regard those actions pretty negatively, and in fact view them worse than if someone is just self-interested and not trying to do any good at all.”

In one of the four experiments, 169 participants were asked to rate the morality of a man’s actions on a scale of one to nine, with nine being the most moral. One group of participants were told that the man volunteered at his crush’s place of employment – a homeless shelter – and gave him an average morality rate of 4.75. That was lower than the 5.62 average another group of participants rated the man for volunteering at a coffee shop to get close to his love interest.

A third group exposed to both scenarios reported an average morality rating of 6.33 in the homeless shelter story and 4.9 for the coffee shop version. Newman suggested that when confronted with both scenarios, those participants recognized that performing a charitable act was better than not performing one.

Brian Broccolo, volunteer coordinator at Chicago nonprofit Horizons for Youth, said he understands how some might discount those who volunteer for selfish reasons, but that he’s more concerned about whether the volunteer is engaged.

“As long as they are giving their time and energy and as long as they care about the growth of their students, I think their own personal motivation should be a secondary thought,” he said.

Another experiment, though, found that even a hint of self-interest can result in a negative view. In that study, researchers described to 206 participants the Gap (RED) campaign, an initiative in which 50 percent of profits from certain products sold by Gap’s partners are donated to help fight the spread of HIV/AIDS and malaria.

Participants told that half of the profits are pocketed and the other half donated gave the company an average morality rate of 5.93, lower than the 7.12 reported by those told only that half of the proceeds are donated. But when those aware of the profit were reminded that the company didn’t have to donate any proceeds to charity, the morality rating rose.

The study’s results suggest that corporations and nonprofits can induce more donations and volunteers by simply tweaking their marketing, according to Newman.

Eileen Gallagher, an account supervisor working in corporate responsibility at public relations firm Edelman in Chicago, said the kind of information produced by the study is vital for her clients.

“This type of research is very important to communicators and PR professionals,” she said. “Finding the right approach and tone to share these messages are important.”