Journalism Opinion Mirrors Science – Reactance and Charity!

Here’s a great column that wonders about the perils of charities soliciting for donations in supermarkets, shops, and other places of business.  The writer notes from his own experience a number of different shopping experiences that include requests to donate money to a charity while checking out.

If you shopped at any number of stores participating in the hospital’s campaign—including Williams-Sonoma, Kmart, CVS drug stores, and others—you also were asked to contribute. Chances are, like me, you dutifully added to the kitty. But I wonder how many, like me, came away with a bad taste from the experience, an unpleasant sense of having been imposed upon.

The writer describes exactly an effect already described in the persuasion literature over 40 years ago that stems from Reactance Theory.  One of the test areas in this theory was how people reacted to unexpected requests for helping.  And, that research demonstrated that indeed you can elicit a reactant response where people feel their freedom and autonomy are unjustly and improperly restricted by such prosocial acts as asking for assistance or for soliciting donations.

Whether this reactance is “right” or “wrong” is not the issue here – that, of course, is a matter of ethics.  What the research does prove is that human nature acts and reacts in unexpected ways.  All the good guy prosocial charities are looking for ways to reach donors and acquire resources.  Gee whiz, why not make the request to people with money while they are actually buying stuff and earning discounts?  What a great marketing opportunity, oops, great charity moment!  Let’s run the Reciprocity Cue!

Got ReactanceExcept that people do not carry a dominant natural desire to donate in every situation they face.  While the cash register appeal seems obvious and natural, closer inspection reveals troubling fault lines.  People simply do not expect an active prosocial appeal for donations in a checkout.  Sure, we’ve got the tradition of those containers with a donation request, but those are passive requests.  If you see it and you want to, here it is.

In a checkout people are thinking about themselves in a very particular way.  First, the presence of money tends to make people feel more independent and autonomous, separate from others.  Second, purchase decisions make people teeter between gratification now or a better deal later, leaving them a bit uncertain.  Third, violating expectations anywhere makes the event much more memorable and not in a good way.  I don’t doubt that the organizations who do this, both the business with the cash register and the organization seeking the donation, acquire a noticeable amount of money from customers.  They should also realize there’s more to human nature going on here and that they are also generating ill will.