The power of social norming

You know those whip-rounds that go on occasionally for a leaving gift or thank-you gift for someone at work or in a group you belong to? Well, think for a minute how you go about deciding how much to give. There might be all kinds of influences on your decision: how well you know the person, how much you like the person, how grateful you are for their service, your perception of their need, what your income is, and so on.

But that’s probably not all.

The amount you decide to give also has signal value — you are sending a message about yourself to anyone else who finds out how much you give. When you buy presents off a wedding list, for example, you are sending a message to the couple-to-be about your generosity, the value you place on your relationship with them, and how much you approve of their relationship, all summed up in an exact figure. And let’s face it, they will check. (Now their conclusions will be tempered by their perception of how much you earn, how much they liked you to begin with, their sense of entitlement, and all kinds of other factors, but that’s another story.)

But who is it with whom you are communicating with a leaving or thank-you gift? In this situation the recipient of the gift normally just gets a card with everyone’s names in it along with a cheque or voucher for the total amount (unless it is pitifully small, in which case standard practice seems to be to give a framed print of dubious artistic merit “to remember us by”; that too is another story). Probably then the only person who finds out how much you’re giving is the person who is organizing the collection. So if you’re honest you’ll acknowledge that how generous you want to appear to the person who is organizing the whip-round will have some influence on the amount you are giving — after all, perhaps someone will organize a leaving gift for you one day!

But there’s another factor that might be even more important — knowing how much other people are giving.

I experienced a vivid example of this recently. I was organizing a thank-you gift for a couple of people who’d led a church group for the last couple of years and accordingly sent an email round to the group members to invite those who wanted to contribute to the gift to do so. The first five people who responded directly to me between them donated £20, thus averaging £4.00 per person. Then someone accidentally responded to the entire group promising a £20 donation. What effect did this have on everyone else? The amount of donations went up, big time. I had six further responses directly to me who between them donated £85, so averaging £14.17 per person. The increase was so dramatic that the smallest gift in this second group was double the size of the largest gift in the first group. Even with such small sample sizes this difference is statistically significant with a hefty effect size [t(5.5) = 3.66, p = .01, Cohen's d = 2.12, for those who care about these things]. So we can pretty confidently say that knowing how much someone else gave affected how much people chose to give. (I should point out that this is hardly the first time this effect has been noted!)

What’s going on here? Just to consider a few potential factors, it’s unlikely the six people who gave more knew the gift recipients twice as well, liked them twice as much, were twice as grateful, or earned twice as much. Rather, it seemed that knowing how much another donor gave — having a social norm — set a baseline that trumped the other factors used to decide how much to give. (There was of course still variation in the amounts given in the second group, but this can probably be explained by some function on the baseline of the other factors in relation to people’s perceptions of the public donor’s reasons for giving £20.) But why did having a baseline have such an effect? However much an individual in the second group gave, the only people who would know the amount were me (the gift organizer) and the donor himself. So did people in the second group give more so that I would think they were generous relative to the £20 public donor? Well that might explain some of it, but certainly not all, because everyone knows that I’ll know how much they and everyone else will give anyway (in that sense it is like the wedding gift example, the difference being that the gift isn’t for me). So the only other factor here is how people want to think about themselves. No one wants to think of themselves as stingy, so having a baseline allows people to make a judgment that balances how generous they want to feel that they are in relation to the public donor and modulated by their personal circumstances (how much they earn, how much they like the recipient, and so on).

So, enough theory — how about a practical application of this. If you are organizing a gift for someone, suggest a range of appropriate gift amounts that will allow you to reach your target sum (especially if you have a specific gift in mind). By setting the baseline people can vary around that according to their circumstances without trying to guess what would be appropriate. Another example: You’ll notice on forms or websites for sponsored charity activities (I’m thinking Race For Life, for example) that the amount people give is normally public. It’s likely then that people decide how much to give at least partly on the basis of how much other people have decided to give. So if you are seeking sponsorship for something, you can maximise the amount your sponsors give if you make sure the first few people you approach are generous sponsors. This will set a baseline around which other people can set themselves. (Beware of course of asking family members, who might be perceived to be giving above the baseline because of their special connection to you. Complicated, isn’t it?) On the other hand, if you are asked to sponsor someone for something then the most honest decision you can make is likely prior to knowing how much others are giving.

And how much did I give, knowing how much everyone else gave and having seen such a powerful example of social norming? Well, that would be telling. Anyway, aren’t you glad that I’ve never asked you to sponsor me for anything?

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