The ‘Maybe’ Favor
Imagine that the elderly gentleman living next door asks you to run some errands for him later—but only if his daughter won’t be able to make it in the afternoon. So you are asked for a “maybe” favor—one that maybe never has to be fulfilled. Probably then, more people would be willing to grant such a favor than if they would certainly have to make good on their promise. But at the same time, if some people never get the chance to keep their promises, some good deeds will be left undone and there will be less courtesy overall.
Or will it? Maybe, we can get actually more good deeds done even though some of them might not be done after all…
To test this idea, we conducted experiments where our participants could donate their participation money to a charitable organization instead of keeping it for themselves. Half were simply given some information about the organization and then had the choice to make the donation or not. On average, 58% of these participants chose to make the donation.
Introducing the ‘Maybe’ Favor
For the other half of our participants, we added a tiny clause to our donation proposal that had a similar effect as the “maybe” from the introductory example: we told them that we will randomly select 5% of those willing to donate to have their donation canceled so they would keep all their participation money. When learning of this “maybe” implied by the 5% chance to have their donation canceled, now 66% chose to make the donation. That means that by deliberately sacrificing 5% of the donations we could have received, the number of people who were willing to make a donation increased by 13%! So despite giving up on some donations, more people donated in the end. Indeed, we could get more good deeds done by leaving some undone.
Here’s Why This Works
The “maybe favor” works because humans are not very good in evaluating uncertain consequences of their actions. Even very exact information about the degree of uncertainty (for example, the “5%” in the experiment just described) is not reacted to in correct proportion. Instead, small probabilities appear larger and large probabilities appear smaller than they actually are. So the 5% chance of not actually having to give your money to charity “feels” more like a 10% or even 20% chance. But whereas the costs that come with a good deed are often very real (time or money has to be spent), the benefits for the decision maker are more elusive and often boil down to just a “warm glow.” Furthermore, our findings suggest that granting the favor already generates the reward even if the favor never actually has to be delivered. After all, external forces prevented your good deed, so you can still claim that your intentions were good!
Other research showed that inaccurate perceptions of probability are particularly pronounced when the consequences have strong emotions attached to them. But in case of the donations, the outcome consists of both benefits and costs. For the more abstract benefits of doing a good deed for someone else, the probability seems to be evaluated rather accurately but for the very tangible costs, such as sacrificing your own money, the probability to actually incur these costs thus seems lower than it really is. In sum, the “maybe favor” then feels more attractive than a cold and analytic look on the probabilities would have warranted.
Our “maybe favor” does not coerce people to do more good but gently “nudges” them by exploiting how humans think about risk. Its applications are not limited to monetary donations but might also be used to increase volunteer work or social commitment. All one needs to get more good deeds done is a simple “maybe.”
For Further Reading
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect Theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47(2), 263-292. https://doi.org/10.2307/1914185
Rottenstreich, Y., & Hsee, C. K. (2001). Money, kisses, and electric shocks: On the affective psychology of risk. Psychological Science, 12(3), 185-190. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00334
Zürn, M. K., Gerten, J., & Topolinski, S. (2021). Maybe favors: How to get more good deeds done. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. https://doi.org/10.1037/xap0000357
Michael K. Zürn is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Cologne where he investigates the cognitive processes underlying economic behavior.