Can A Charity Create Too Much Awareness?

During the heart of Komen’s Planned Parenthood fiasco there was a noticeable uptick in Komen-criticism unrelated to women’s reproductive rights. Those critiques went something along the lines of, “Enough pink stuff! Everybody is aware of breast cancer! Why don’t you work to actually fight the disease!?” Although most of the complaints were relatively tongue-in-cheek, they bring up an interesting question: Can a charity hurt itself by creating too much awareness? According to a new study by Robert Smith and Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan, the answer is yes.

The two psychologists wanted to know how a person’s awareness of a charity influences their intention to donate. They reasoned that when a person knows about a charity, they might see their knowledge as evidence the charity is important to them. Alternatively, they might view their awareness as evidence the charity is well known and doesn’t need their help. Smith and Schwarz also reasoned that the inverse of those possibilities would occur when a person does not know a lot about a charity. That is, a person might see their lack of knowledge as a sign the charity is unimportant, or they could view their lack of awareness as a sign the charity is in dire need of help.

Through a series of experiments Smith and Schwarz discovered that a person’s response was driven by the goal of the charity. When a charity’s goal was to raise awareness about a problem, knowing about the charity made somebody less likely to donate because the dominant perception was that the charity didn’t need help. On the other hand, when a charity had goals based on providing direct assistance rather than raising awareness, knowing about the charity made somebody more likely to donate because the dominant feeling was that the charity was important.

Smith and Schwarz began their experiments by giving undergraduates a pamphlet about a charity and then having them take a memory test on what they read. Some of the tests were easy and some were difficult. For example, the easy test would ask “Was there an increase….?” whereas the difficult test would ask “How much of an increase….?” The result was that the participants who took the easy memory test had the impression that they knew a lot more about the charity. After the test participants were asked about their intentions to donate.

In the first experiment, the pamphlet was about a charity that helped orphans in Uganda (i.e. a charity whose goal was not to raise awareness). Participants who took the easy memory test, and thus felt more familiar with the charity, planned to donate more than those who took the hard test. In the second experiment, the pamphlet was about a charity that aimed to raise awareness about rainforest destruction. This time participants who took the easy test planned to donate less money. In a third experiment real money donations were solicited for a childhood heart disease charity whose goal was to raise awareness and treat children. As in the previous experiments, those who remembered more about the charity gave less when they were told it raised awareness and more when they were told it treated children. Smith and Schwarz concluded:

Knowing a lot about a charity and its cause can hurt rather than help charitable giving, provided the charity emphasizes awareness-raising as a goal…for awareness-raising charities, high memorability can backfire when consumers infer that awareness is already high and conclude that additional donations are not needed.

So, should the Komen Foundation (or Livestrong, or whoever) be concerned? Probably not, especially if they start winding down awareness efforts and begin focusing more on showing people exactly what they’re doing to fight cancer.

In my mind the big takeaway from the study is that it’s an excellent example of how the charity sector, like sports, politics, education, and marketing, is rapidly approaching a future where person-level data is king. Many organizations have some combination of goals that includes raising awareness and direct acts of assistance. If charities have data on exactly how aware a donor is of their activities, they can then target the donor with an appeal that defines the organization in just the right way. For example, if a potential donor knows all about Komen, they can be targeted with a message about the medical research being done with donations. On the other hand, if a potential donor has never seen a pink ribbon before, they can be targeted with a message about Komen’s work raising breast cancer awareness. These are simple examples, but the idea is that each donor can be targeted with donation appeals containing the ideal combination of information on a charity’s awareness-raising and non-awareness-raising activities.
Smith, R., & Schwarz, N. (2012). When promoting a charity can hurt charitable giving: A metacognitive analysis Journal of Consumer Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jcps.2012.01.001


You Are the Sap, Not the Media

Every week there’s an innuendo-laced Santorum headline that goes viral. This week’s winner was “Santorum comes from behind in Alabama three-way.” The popularity of these headlines is driven in part by an “I can’t believe they actually published that” feeling that arises from the possibility the headline creators were unaware of the innuendo. We love entertaining the notion that we’re in on a joke and somebody isn’t. The problem is that these headline writers are 100% aware of what they are doing. In reality, all the headline writers are in on the joke, and we are the oblivious ones.

As of right now, the story above, which is from a Birmingham news site, has been tweeted nearly 1,600 times and has 6,000 “likes” on Facebook. A previous story by the same writer, “Bama Fact Check examines AEA claims about GOP jobs bills,” has 2 tweets and 4 “Likes.” All of those tweets and likes are real cash for the site. These headlines are no accident. They are created because people will always be manipulated into sharing them.

Given that the explicit goal is to create these types of headlines, there should be no “wow” factor, and if the headlines have to stand on their cleverness alone, there would be nothing noteworthy about them. A majority of precocious 5th graders could have come up with the headline above given the facts of the story and the goal gettting the most Facebook links.

“Who cares?” you might be thinking.  As a self-appointed comedy snob, I care, because thousands of people are being made to laugh under false pretenses. It’s like being shown a funny “real” video of somebody getting hit in the groin, when in reality the groin-shot was staged. Those 1,600 people who tweeted the headline could have otherwise tweeted links with something genuinely funny or informative.

People need to take note that the media is now actively participating in Santorum innuendo jokes. That means the joke is officially dead, and I call on all those controlling “link capital” to stop linking to Santorum headlines that are only funny under a false impression of naïveté.

Reasons You Can’t Leave Your iPhone: #74

Most people get made fun of by their friends for being a little too attached to a certain object. (For example, I carry around  a limited edition Jan. 1972 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology  at all times. Ok, not really, but I wish I did.) The thing is, these attachments are not completely crazy because objects can act as useful short term substitutes when it comes to fulfilling psychological needs.  Case in point, a new study by Lucas Keefer and his colleagues at the University of Kansas that shows when people close to us are unreliable, we become more attached to objects.

Participants primed with close others’, but not strangers’, unreliability reported increased attachment to belongings (Study 1), and this effect was mediated by feelings of attachment anxiety (concern over close others’ availability), but not attachment avoidance (avoiding emotional dependence; Study 2), suggesting that object attachment compensates for the perception that close others are unreliable rather than consistently rejecting.

In a third study subjects were actually forced to give up their cell phones, and those primed with uncertainty about their relationships showed more separation anxiety and motivation to reunite with their phone.

One neat thing about the study is that it shows the extent of our psychological evolution. The ability to fulfill a need with human interaction or an inanimate object is no easy feat, and it likely took our brains a good part of human history to learn this trick.

Although the study focuses on attachment anxiety,  I think our ubiquitous concern with self-worth could also be part of the object-attachment story. When other people cause you to consider them unreliable, that’s an attack on you. After all, if you were more awesome they would never disappoint you with their unreliability. As a consequence of this ego downgrade, we must find a way to enhance our self-worth, and one method could be making our valuable possessions more salient.
Keefer, L., Landau, M., Rothschild, Z., & Sullivan, D. (2012). Attachment to Objects as Compensation for Close Others’ Perceived Unreliability Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.02.007

Advances in GOP Debate Signaling

The history of presidential debates is full of innovations. There’s ignoring the moderator’s question, talking beyond your allotted time, and saying “oops” when your forget a simple answer.

The latest fad is note-taking in order to signal disagreement. Any time a candidate gets attacked too early in their opponent’s statement for an immediate response, they go straight for the pen and paper. And it’s a smart move because it accomplishes three things.

  1. It shows the audience you disagree as the earliest possible moment, and that casts some measure of additional doubt on everything that comes next. It also does it in a way that doesn’t make the audience hate you. It’s not as bad as Al Gore muttering or John Kerry calling Bush a “disreputable Commie equivocator.”
  2. It distracts the audience from what your opponent is saying. It may not be perceptible, but when your brain notices that Santorum is writing, it devotes less attention to Romney’s words. At the margin, that makes it less likely you’ll follow what Romney is saying.
  3. It distracts your opponent from what he is saying. Sure, everybody is an experienced politician, but if I was speaking on a stage and could choose to have the guy next to me stand still or write vigorously, I would prefer he stand still. Again, it might make a difference at the margins.

I do think we are close to “peak note-taking.” At some point a viral satire/critique of the practice will emerge, and nobody will ever be able to do it again.

Homeschooling and Creativity

I don’t have a strong opinion on Dana Goldstein’s controversial Slate column that argues homeschooling violates progressive values. So many different factors are important during childhood (family income, social skills, health, peer group, etc.) that I think education decisions need to be judged on a case by case basis. There doesn’t seem to be much value in blanket statements about what type of educational setting is good or bad for a large diverse population of people. (For example, if putting your kid into public school stunts his development and ability to contribute to society, that’s not a positive progressive outcome.)

That said, one area where homeschooling could potentially have a big impact is a child’s creativity. In an excerpt from his new book, Jonah Lehrer discusses how forcing humans together leads to creative sparks.

The lesson of Building 20 is that when the composition of the group is right—enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways—the group dynamic will take care of itself. All these errant discussions add up. In fact, they may even be the most essential part of the creative process. Although such conversations will occasionally be unpleasant—not everyone is always in the mood for small talk or criticism—that doesn’t mean that they can be avoided. The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks.

Having more classmates means more interactions and more opportunities for creativity. Lehrer does point out that creativity doesn’t always magically result from group formation. There must also be diversity of opinions, debate, and criticism.

A new study led by psychologist Simone Ritter digs even deeper into the basis of creativity. While past research has linked creativity with unusual or unexpected experiences, Ritter’s team found that these “diversifying experiences” don’t merely increase performance on various creativity assessments, they also increase cognitive flexibility.

In the first experiment, participants experienced complex unusual and unexpected events happening in a virtual reality. In the second experiment, participants were confronted with schema-violations. In both experiments, comparisons with various control groups showed that a diversifying experience—defined as the active (but not vicarious) involvement in an unusual event—increased cognitive flexibility more than active (or vicarious) involvement in normal experiences. Our findings bridge several lines of research and shed light on a basic cognitive mechanism responsible for creativity.

However likely it seems, there is still no guarantee that a generic public school will provide more of these “diversifying experiences.” We’ve all experienced the daily monotony and routine that allows our massive education system to remain stable.

Homeschooling could also do a lot to promote creativity. Some homeschooled children might take weekly field trips to museums, concerts, or legislative sessions. And let’s not forget about the archetype of a loner child who spends all day playing Dungeons & Dragons with his anthropomorphized stuffed animals. It’s possible that extreme loneliness could enhance creativity.

In the end, I don’t think one can conclusively say whether or not homeschooling is good or bad for creativity. (And it would be poor form for me to do so given my above screed against blanket statements on educational choices.) However, if it was my decision, I would want my kid’s brain out there colliding with as many other brains as possible.

Ritter, S., Damian, R., Simonton, D., van Baaren, R., Strick, M., Derks, J., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2012). Diversifying Experiences Enhance Cognitive Flexibility Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.02.009

Which Co-Worker is Most Likely to Beat You Up?

Tommy works in the mail room. You’re always very courteous when he comes by, but it’s clear he has greater aspirations. You sense his frustration with his low status and inability to prove his competence is causing something dark to build inside of him.

Kevin is the Senior VP of the department. He’s powerful, confident, and in control. However, you know research shows that power can lead to aggressive tendencies by increasing risk taking and the perception that one can do “whatever they want.”

So, who should you be more afraid of? According to a new paper, the answer is…the guy who’s a winner.

In Studies 1 and 2, participants were told that they did worse or better than an ostensible partner on a first task. Then they aggressed against this partner on a second task using loud, painful noise blasts. Results showed that participants aggressed more against someone they outperformed (the loser) than against someone who outperformed them (the winner).

A few quickie implications that jump to mind:

1.The “stand up to bullies” mantra taught by sitcoms from the 80’s may actually hold water. Show the bully he’s not truly “outperforming you,” and his aggressiveness may decrease.

2. American foreign policy over the last 97 years is finally explained. “We’re better than you? Great! We’ll kick your ass!”

3. Those in power are a greater threat to peace than those they rule over.

4. Maybe all those people we locked up for non-violent drug crimes (who are “losers” not “winners”) aren’t as big a threat to society as some would have you think.

What else can you extrapolate from the study?
Muller, D., Bushman, B., Subra, B., & Ceaux, E. (2012). Are People More Aggressive When They Are Worse Off or Better Off Than Others? Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550612436984

Thinking Through a Higher Education Fantasy

If you could build the American higher education system from scratch, what would it look like?

Crafting an answer to that question is a little like designing a crazy concept car that you steer with a joystick and an eye-tracker – it’s not practical at the moment, but it’s worth thinking about. Even though incremental change is all we can hope for in the short-term, at some point it would be nice to make progress toward big picture reform.

One idea that’s starting to get attention is replacing student loans with a system where colleges take a percentage of students’ future earnings. That would be a good start, but it still wouldn’t fully change the fundamental structure of higher education. The reason college is so expensive is that a scarce number of college acceptances are treated as the desired commodity. If we want to create a system that really puts students first we need something where the student (in the form of future earnings, donations, or alumni glory) is the desired commodity.

How would a system like that work? Probably not too different from how it is now. At the moment you send a school an application, and if you’re accepted you get an offer: “You may pay us $160,000 in exchange for an education.” However, to change that dynamic all we need is for schools to send every student a uniquely tailored offer involving no up-front payments. “Pay 10% of annual income for 15 years. Maximum payment of $150,00.” “Pay 2% of annual income for 30 years. No cap.” “Receive $20,000 for successfully earning a diploma. Pay 20% of annual income for 3 years.” “Pay 4% of annual income until cap of $300,000 is reached.” Colleges would need teams of actuaries and lawyers working on this full time. (Look, my plan is also a job creator!)

More options should make every student better off. The kid who could never afford to go to college will have better odds of finding somebody to take a chance on him (albeit, at a high future cost.) The absence of an upfront cost will also spur people to go to college who otherwise might have made a bad decision to not go. Economically speaking, taking out a $100k loan and owing $100k in future real income aren’t all that different, but the psychological difference should have an effect.

What about the kid on the other end of the spectrum, the valedictorian who can go anywhere? Right now he essentially has two choices: Pay full tuition at Harvard/Yale/Princeton, or stay home and get a full scholarship to the local Big Ten or ACC school. In a world where colleges make unique offers, his choices will open up. Maybe Penn will offer a full scholarship or Yale will offer a much better deal than Harvard or Princeton. Maybe some college will want him so badly they’ll pay five figures. All of these benefits will go to average and weak students too. Whatever happens, there will be more choices, and that will allow students to not only have a say in where they go to college, but in the conditions under which they go to college.

A system of uniquely tailored offers will also make it easier for at-risk students to go to the same colleges as their friends (See: Posse Foundation for why this can be important.) A student could get into a smarter friend’s more selective college by taking a less favorable offer, or the smart friend could take a more lucrative offer at a less selective school. The additional choices allow students to capture more of the gains from trade (the trade being money for education/prestige.)  Creating ways for universities to transfer more value to students is the key to any higher education solution. It doesn’t matter if it’s through cheaper education, better education, or some other channel.

As far as I can tell, there are two big downsides to this type of system. Each of these unique contracts will act as a tax on future earnings, and that will discourage graduates from earning money. However, the difference between earning money and doing something with social value is rapidly increasing. Although graduates will choose to earn less money, that could entail deciding to be an entrepreneur or a volunteer instead of heading straight to law school or Goldman Sachs.

The bigger problem relates to university budgets. Schools would need a lot of help during the 5-10 year period in which their revenue stream transitions from up-front payments to deferred payments. Once the transition was complete, schools would also bring in less revenue, and I think we’ll figure out a tuition-free way to fund every college for 10 years before we’ll see schools allow their financial systems to be jeopardized.

If this system of hyper-specific offers seems crazy, remember that it’s closer to the way higher education works at the graduate level. If we want to make higher education a better value for students, we need to build a system where students have real bargaining power.