Charitable acts may backfire if seen as self-serving

Posted on January 29, 2014

Photo: flickr

If someone volunteers at a charity hoping to reel in a love interest, is that act still viewed as altruistic? Not likely, according to a study published in the January edition of Psychological Science.

Yale University researchers found that people tend to view personal and corporate charitable acts performed for personal gain as less moral than other types of self-interested behavior. They have coined this phenomenon the “tainted-altruism effect.”

“We were interested in how people evaluate these pro-social efforts in situations where the person stands to benefit personally,” said lead author George Newman, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management in New Haven, Conn. “What we found through a number of different experiments is that people seem to regard those actions pretty negatively, and in fact view them worse than if someone is just self-interested and not trying to do any good at all.”

One of the experiment found that even a hint of self-interest can result in a negative view. In that study, researchers described to 206 participants the Gap (RED) campaign, an initiative in which 50 percent of profits from certain products sold by Gap’s partners are donated to help fight the spread of HIV/AIDS and malaria.

Participants told that half of the profits are pocketed and the other half donated gave the company an average morality rate of 5.93, lower than the 7.12 reported by those told only that half of the proceeds are donated. But when those aware of the profit were reminded that the company didn’t have to donate any proceeds to charity, the morality rating rose.

The study’s results suggest that corporations and nonprofits can induce more donations and volunteers by simply tweaking their marketing, according to Newman.

Source material from Northwestern University