Splitting II: Feeling good about doing good

Start here for part I on splitting.

If people have several motivations for donating to charity, sometimes it might make sense to split donations in order to optimize the outcome for each motivation separately. Our previous post looked at splitting one’s donation budget from the perspective of wanting to achieve the most in terms of helping others. This post now analyzes a different situation, where we also want to experience an emotional connection to the help we generate, or where we feel emotionally compelled to support a particular cause or particular charity.

2. Feeling good about donating

We may not always admit it, but a main reason why many people donate to charity is because it gives them a good feeling, a “warm glow.” Conversely, we sometimes donate because not donating would leave us with a bad feeling. This is nothing to be ashamed of! On the contrary, as caring human beings, others’ happiness and gratitude provide strong motivation to do good in the first place. With all the abstract focus on effectiveness, one should be careful to not make the mistake of concluding that the emotions that got us interested in altruism in the first place are useless or irrational. If we could engineer ourselves to be less intuitively compassionate, this may not be a good idea: Admittedly, being emotional about a certain topic can lead to bad decisions sometimes, and we should be aware of this especially in situations where a lot of impact is at stake. But often, and probably more often than not, compassion serve a vital and positive role in human interactions.

Do you favor a particular charity because it really resonates with you, is run by a friend, or tackles a problem you’re particularly passionate about? Donating to it can be a great thing, both because it does make some positive contribution (assuming that the organization isn’t accidentally doing more harm than good!) and because it will make you happier and more motivated to help, leading to more positive action being taken in the long run.

However, an important thing to keep in mind is that, if we also care about effectiveness, it is essential to be honest with oneself and not rationalize that the cause one supports for other reasons also happens to be the one that is the most cost-effective at helping others. Technically, such a scenario is not ruled out — but it would be a rather big coincidence if it were actually the case! More likely, there are other charities we could be donating to where money makes a much bigger positive difference. Acknowledging conflicting motivations can be a great opportunity to be able to accomplish both of one’s motivations for donating, helping others, and feeling good about doing good. So having different separate motivations for donating can be an excellent and rational reason to split one’s donation budget. Instead of making a compromise between genuinely wanting to help and wanting the good feeling from helping — in a way that may end up only mediocre at accomplishing both — one could split donations into two budgets: One for calculated, effective world improvement, and one for the warm glow that comes with supporting something close to one’s heart, where the effect of one’s contribution is emotionally salient.

Interestingly enough, when trying to optimize for this “warm glow” feeling of satisfaction, our brain’s scope insensitivity bias can be used to our advantage. We don’t need to help a huge amount of people in order to get a great feeling. In fact, it is mainly individuals and their inspiring stories that move us the most, so even donating comparatively small amounts of money could have a large effect on making us happy with our choice. In order to optimize for a good feeling when donating, one could donate sums to:

  • support the local orphanage (and go on regular visits)
  • (anonymously) send a check to the poor neighbor one always sees struggling
  • rescue a pet through adoption
  • donate time and volunteer for some local organization

This way, a large part of one’s charitable budget is left to be given to the organization(s) that, although they might operate far away or may not be the most emotionally moving in terms of the charitiy’s narrative, will accomplish the most good.

Of course, not everyone will feel inclined to support the same causes. And for many, the mere knowledge that a charity was chosen according to the best estimates on highest overall cost-effectiveness will be very motivating and meaningful. If this is the case, the situation is a win-win!

Often however – though perhaps less so among poker pros? –, people have an aversion to cost-effectiveness analysis, or they might agree with it in theory, but still intuitively favor other causes. This situation of having conflicting goals and intuitions can make picking charities very difficult. It may even make some people hostile towards cost-effectiveness analysis. At this point, it is important to emphasize that no one is forced to donate according to cost-effectiveness. It is not necessarily “irrational” from a personal standpoint to donate to charities that are not the most effective – it really all depends on the goals we want to accomplish through our donations!

Thinking about it rationally, what should determine the part of our charitable budget that is going to the most cost-effective organization(s) is the extent to which our goal is to help others unconditionally, i.e. for their own sake. If this is part of our motivation for donating, but when we also have other reasons and other causes we want to support, then it may be best in the long run to split our donations in order to get a great outcome according to all our reasons for doing good.

This blogpost was inspired by the LessWrong article Purchase fuzzies and utilons separately.