Ever wonder about those people who donate to NPR pledge drives year after year, even though everyone else still enjoys the same listening benefits they do? And if you are one of those people, ever wonder if you're alone?
A new study by J. Mark Weber and J. Keith Murnighan, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, examines these people who give to others even when it's not required of them. Weber and Murninghan found that not only do these kinds of people, who the researchers call "consistent contributors," regularly emerge in social situations, their generosity also encourages others to follow suit.
In a series of experiments, participants were given small amounts of money and, in several rounds, they could donate some or all of it to a group fund. The group as a whole benefited when more participants contributed, but individual participants of course fared better by not contributing. Between each round, the participants learned the amounts donated by other members of their group in the prior round, though the others' identities were sometimes kept confidential.
Across the studies, 10 to 15 percent of the participants proved to be consistent contributors, donating some or all of their money in every round. What's more, other members of their group donated two to three times more than members of groups that lacked a consistent contributor. Consistent contributors had this effect on others' behavior even when the contributor's identity was kept secret. And if participants were led to believe that the consistent contributor was of high status (described as a Ph.D. student), they donated even more and rated their choice to do so as smarter than they did otherwise.
This research has reassuring implications for NPR member stations and other organizations that rely heavily on regular donors: Those donors are likely to surface, and to influence the behavior of more cautious contributors. Maybe for its next fund drive, your NPR station should remind you of the people who always donate, especially if those people are pursing Ph.D.s.