What motivates giving – insights from behavioural science

Andrew Milner

If you think of academic research into philanthropy, you’d probably associate it with its conceptual elements – what philanthropy is, whether it should happen, what are its effects and so on. However, academic research has probably covered most ground in the area of donor motivations and how the brain works when people donate.

A Wall Street Journal article remarks: ‘researchers in recent years have begun digging deeper into the question, using controlled experiments and psychological testing to better understand why people feel compelled to donate to a good cause.’ Or not.

It’s not entirely a new phenomenon, of course. As long ago as the late 1980s, economist James Andreoni coined the term ‘warm-glow theory’ to suggest that giving produced a personal, psychological premium. There seems general agreement, though, that this field of study has been given greater impetus since the turn of the millennium.

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