Nudgespotting: Getting Yourself to Give


Many of us think of ourselves as charitable. We have special causes that we care about and often consider ourselves more charitable than our friends towards these causes. But when we actually tally up our giving, we’re often not as generous as we thought. Why don’t our good intentions turn into good actions?

The truth is, giving is hard. There are a seemingly endless number of worthy causes, which makes it hard to choose which to financially support. So sometimes, we don’t choose at all. Even when we do choose a specific cause, we often have trouble remembering to donate. And while I might personally feel a little guilty about not giving more, ultimately I’m more upset about forgetting to pay my rent (and incurring a fee) than forgetting to donate.  

The good news is that behavioral science can help. Below are three real-world examples where behavioral science principles are employed to make giving easier – and the consequences of not giving a little less trivial. 


Evidence shows that asking for donations while people are shopping can be an effective way to increase giving. When shopping online at Patagonia, you’re presented with an option to donate to The Nature Conservancy – a cause many Patagonia shoppers are likely to support. Because the cause and amount are already chosen, you simply need to decide “yes” or “no” to a $1 donation (an amount that seems minuscule in the context of a $160 sale). Having decided to donate, actually doing so is simple: just checking a box. No need to pull out a credit card, as payment information has already been collected.

When checking out at Patagonia, you're given the option of an easy $1.00 donation to The Nature Conservancy.


While prompting a shopper to make a donation during checkout out can be a simple and effective nudge on its own, convenience stores like Duane Reade also use a hint of social pressure. Duane Reade used to have a prompt on its checkout screen asking if you would like to donate $1 to St. Jude Children's Hospital. It was easy to check “yes” and add a dollar to the total, but it was also easy to check “no” without repercussions. Recently, they transitioned to a new approach: the sales clerk asks if you would like to donate a dollar. Suddenly, it’s a lot harder to say “no.” Verbally declining to donate an amount as small as $1 – in front of the clerk and others in line – seems to violate a social norm. What kind of person doesn’t want to support a children’s hospital? 

Some of New York City's Duane Reades may have dropped their prompt to donate at checkout, but this CVS hasn't.


For donation requests that are more substantial than a dollar, colleges often deftly portray donating as a prevalent social norm among alumni and make the consequences of donating (or not donating) salient. My alma mater sends a few reminder emails every year encouraging us to donate and listing the names of all students in our class who have already done so. The long list of names makes giving seem very common – not among strangers, but among my own peer group. Giving now seems like something that someone like me – in terms of age, education, social circles – should be doing. And suddenly there is a personal consequence, other than my own guilt, for not giving: a missing name that my peers will notice.

Colleges often use social pressure, like listing the names of your peers who have donated, to encourage you to give.

These behavioral science principles are cheap and easy to implement, but can help contribute to hundreds of millions in donations. Readers, have you witnessed behavioral science at work in charitable giving?