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Empty boxes and politeness dent generosity
February 21, 2007 / 1:50 PM / 11 years ago

Empty boxes and politeness dent generosity

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - People will not give money if they are thanked in advance or presented with an empty donation box, but will dig deep if they see banknotes, according to a study by New Zealand academics released on Wednesday.

<p>Banknotes are seen inside a donation box in Hong Kong January 1, 2005. People will not give money if they are thanked in advance or presented with an empty donation box, but will dig deep if they see banknotes, according to a study by New Zealand academics released on Wednesday. REUTERS/Bobby Yip</p>

The research by Victoria University of Wellington’s economics department showed that how much is already in a donation box, the mix of coins and notes, and what sorts of signs are present will influence how generous the public will be.

The behavior of people faced with a clear donation box at the entrance to the city’s art gallery was filmed by a hidden camera.

“The most important thing is to never leave the box empty,” said senior lecturer John Randal.

“But it is also important to ensure there is a balance of notes and coins so that whether people want to make a large or small donation, that they feel it is appropriate to do so.”

The researchers used various combination of banknotes and coins, various amounts of money, and signs thanking people as well as telling them they were being filmed.

More banknotes than coins led to larger individual donations, but a fall in the number of donations, while more coins saw more donations but of a lower value.

“It appears that people will make bigger donations when they perceive that others have made large donations,” Randal said.

“But when the box was always empty, the total amount donated was significantly less, which suggested that people saw the lack of donations as indicating that the norm was not to donate.”

Thank you signs led to fewer donations, especially if the donation box already had a large amount in it, which was apparently reinforcing a natural instinct not to give.

The results of the study are to be published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.

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