Bloodthirsty Charities

When it comes to blood donation, nothing matters more than message.
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When it comes to blood donation, nothing matters more than message.

Have you given blood lately? Donated to a local non-profit? Do you remember the appeal that moved you to open your vein or pocketbook?

Odds are, it was a dire message (“Help prevent a needless death”) rather than a cheerful one (“Help save an innocent life”). That’s the key finding from a collaborative study between the Red Cross and researchers at Northwestern and the University of Virginia. The emotional psychology of a charitable call to action has everything to do with its efficacy, authors Eileen Chou and J. Keith Murnighan report, and humanity’s well-documented “loss aversion” is a far more powerful motivator than “gain promotion” in giving, too.

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Charitable giving—whether dollars or blood cells—has fallen steeply in the recession, and non-profits across the country are struggling to keep their balance sheets in the black and their blood banks in the red. (Groan. —Ed.) Chou and Murnighan did an informal survey of the nation’s top-ten charities, and found that while overall donations were off 11 percent in 2010, not every organization was hemorrhaging funds. (Double groan. —Ed.) Upon closer inspection, the non-profit world’s winners and losers differed in how they framed their public appeals.

In a paper that appears this month in PLOS One, the authors note that “the appeals of all of the six top charities that experienced donation decreases stressed their recipients’ need for gains,” such as “To continue saving lives” (The American Cancer Society) and “Doing the most good” (Salvation Army).

“In sharp contrast,” they continue, “the appeals of the four top charities that experienced donation increases all focused on their recipients’ losses if help was not forthcoming,” with calls to “prevent [children] from going hungry” (Feed the Children) and “reduce poverty in America” (Catholic Charities).

The emotional psychology at work here is known as “prospect theory,” which “suggests that the pain of losing is about twice as strong the joy of gaining the same amount.” Humans, in other words, are risk averse, and perfectly irrational when it comes to losses and gains: give a test subject $10 to gamble in an experimental setting, and when she walks away with only five, she’ll beat herself up for taking a stupid bet—despite the fact that she’s still $5 richer than when she walked into the room.

Chou and Murnighan argue that ad agencies and public health officials already rely on prospect theory and loss aversion to sharpen their messaging. (Women who are warned of the dangers of not performing self breast-exams, for example, are better at remembering to check for lumps than women who are reminded of a self-exam’s benefits.) Why shouldn’t charities target the same quirk of behavioral psychology?

The authors, in partnership with the Red Cross, decided to test the impact of “loss” vs. “gain” messaging in a real-world setting: a blood drive on the Northwestern campus. Fewer than two in five Americans are even eligible to donate blood, they write, and just ten percent of those can, do. Even so, “An increase of only 1% more of the American population giving blood every year would reduce national blood shortages to zero.” (Yes, you read that right.) Instead, national blood shortages are a chronic problem.

The subjects of Chou and Murnighan’s study were Northwestern’s 3,500 undergrads, all of whom received, via email, one of three appeals: a control message (containing only the date location of the drive); a loss-aversion message (“Don’t delay! Help prevent someone from dying!”); or a gain-promotion message (“Act now. Help save someone’s life!”).

Loss-aversion targets were reminded that “Every second, two people could die waiting for blood,” while their gain-promotion classmates were told, “Every day, many people can be saved by donated blood.

When the Bloodmobile arrived on campus, students who’d received the “prevent a death” message were two-thirds more likely to make a donation than students who’d received either the “save a life” or control messages.

While overall student participation was discouraging, hovering around 1 percent, Chou and Murnighan observe that the strategic messaging had a clear and significant effect. At the same time, it was free, effortless, and scalable, requiring only a bit of Psych 101 and careful attention to language.

Indeed, with non-profits’ budgets still thin, but email and social media ascendant, there may be no better way to wring a few extra dollars—or platelets—out of would-be donors.

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