College of Liberal Arts

People More Motivated to Give When They See Others Volunteering Abroad

Thu, Dec 15, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas — People are more inspired to give when they see others contributing their time and money to a good cause outside their home state, according to a new psychology study from The University of Texas at Austin.

The study, led by Marlone Henderson, assistant professor of psychology, will be published in the January issue of Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 

Marlone Henderson video still 

In a series of experiments, Henderson and his team of researchers examined how physical and social distance affects people's willingness to participate in philanthropy. Respondents were more motivated to give to a cause, he found, when they learned of others assisting people in need outside of their homeland.

Henderson said these findings imply that civic groups, nonprofits and charitable organizations will be more successful at recruiting volunteers and donors by exposing them to others who are giving to causes that serve other cultures in foreign countries.

"Most of the time people volunteer or give to a charity to which they have a connection," Henderson said. "So when they learn about people who are going against the norm by giving back to people in foreign countries, that really stands out and motivates them to take action."

As part of the study, the 626 respondents were given descriptions of university student civic groups that help disadvantaged children in a "Schools Mentoring Research Team" (SMART) program. The programs are fictitious, however the respondents believed them to be real and were prepared to donate money at the end of the study.

Variations of the SMART programs included volunteers working abroad (i.e. Chinese students helping children in Turkey, or American students helping children in China). Other programs involved volunteers in their respective countries (i.e. Chinese students helping children in Beijing, or Texas-based students helping children in Austin).

After viewing the programs' websites, which included photos of volunteers with the children, the participants were asked if they would support a program by purchasing a T-shirt. The researchers found participants were 1.5 times more willing to buy a T-shirt from a SMART program helping children overseas.

In another study, the researchers recruited 47 respondents from Amazon's Mechanical Turk, an online labor market created by, and informed them about tornado devastation in the Midwest. After learning about the various SMART programs, the participants were asked to express their interest in helping the tornado victims. Respondents who were told in advance about Chinese students helping Turkish children were willing to give 60 percent more to tornado victims than those who were told in advance about Chinese students helping children in Beijing.

"When people learn about others who are going outside their own communities to help the less fortunate — standing little to gain — they are reminded of their own apathy," Henderson said. "But rather than feeling guilty, they see these programs as glowing examples of good will."

Watch a video of Henderson discussing celebrities and giving.

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