Monday, July 18, 2022

Narrative Stories Are More Effective Than Philosophical Arguments in Convincing Research Participants to Donate to Charity

A new paper of mine, hot off the presses at Philosophical Psychology, with collaborators Christopher McVey and Joshua May:

"Engaging Charitable Giving: The Motivational Force of Narrative Versus Philosophical Argument" (freely available final manuscript version here)

Chris, who was then a PhD student here at UC Riverside, had the idea for this project back in 2014 or 2015. He found my work on the not-especially-ethical behavior of ethics professors interesting, but maybe too negative in its focus. Instead of emphasizing what doesn't seem to have any effect on moral behavior, could I turn my attention in a postive direction? Even if philosophical reflection ordinarily has little impact on one's day-to-day choices, maybe there are conditions under which it can have an effect. What might those conditions be?

Chris (partly under the influence of Martha Nussbaum's work) was convinced that narrative storytelling could bring philosophy powerfully to life, changing people's ethical choices and their lived understanding of the world. In his teaching, he used storytelling to great effect, and he thought we might be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of philosophical storytelling empirically too, using ordinary research participants.

Chris thus developed a simple experimental paradigm in which research participants are exposed to a stimulus -- either a philosophical argument for charitable giving, a narrative story about a person whose life was dramatically improved by a charitable organization, both the argument and the narrative, or a control text (drawn from a middle school physics textbook) -- and then given a surprise 10% chance of receiving $10. Participants could then choose to donate some portion of that $10 (should they receive it) to one of six effective charities. Chris found that participants exposed to the argument donated about the same amount as those in the control condition -- about $4, on average -- while those exposed to the narrative or the narrative plus argument donated about $1 more, with the narrative-plus-argument showing no detectable advantage over the narrative alone.

We also developed a five-item scale for measuring attitude toward charitable donation, with similar results: Expressed attitude toward charitable donation was higher in the narrative condition than in the control condition, while the argument-alone condition was similar to the control condition and the narrative-plus-argument condition was similar to the narrative alone. In other words, exposure to the narrative appeared to shift both attitude and behavior, while argument seemed to be doing no work either on its own or when added to the narrative.

For this study, the narrative was the true story of Mamtha, a girl whose family was saved from slavery in a sand mine by the actions of a charitable organization. The argument was a Peter-Singer-style argument for charitable giving, adapted from Buckland, Lindauer, Rodriguez-Arias, and Veliz 2021. I've appended the full text of both to the end of this blog post.

Here are the results in chart form. (This is actually "Experiment 2" in the published version. Experiment 1 concerned hypothetical donation rather than actual donation, finding essentially the same results.) Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals. Click to enlarge and clarify.

Chris completed his dissertation in 2020 and went into the tech industry (a separate story and an unfortunate loss for academic philosophy!). But I found his paradigm and results so interesting that with his permission, I carried on research using his approach.

One fruit of this was a contest Fiery Cushman and I hosted on this blog in 2019-2020, aiming to find a philosophical argument that is effective in motivating research participants to donate to charity at rates higher than a control condition, since Chris and I had tried several which failed. We did in fact find some effective arguments this way. (The most effective one, and the contest winner, was written collaboratively by Matthew Lindauer and Peter Singer.) Fiery and I are currently running a follow-up study with more details.

The other fruit was a few follow-up studies I conducted collaboratively with Chris and Joshua May. In these studies, we added more narratives and more arguments -- including the winning arguments from the blog contest. These studies extended and replicated Chris's initial results. Across a series of five experiments, we found that participants exposed to emotionally engaging narratives consistently donated more and expressed more positive attitudes toward charitable giving than did participants exposed to the physics-text control condition. Philosophical arguments showed less consistent positive effects, on average considerably weaker and not always statistically detectable in our sample sizes of about 200-300 participants per condition.

For full details, see the full article!


Narrative: Mamtha

Mamtha’s dreams were simple—the same sweet musings of any 10-year-old girl around the world. But her life was unlike many other girls her age: She had no friends and no time to draw. She was not allowed to attend school or even play. Mamtha was a slave. For two years, her every day was spent under the control of a harsh man who cared little for her family’s health or happiness. Mamtha’s father, Ramesh, had been farming his small plot of land in Tamil Nadu until a draught dried his crops and left him deeply in debt. Around that time, a broker from another state offered an advance to cover his debts in exchange for work on a farm several hours away.

Leaving their home village would mean uprooting the family and pulling Mamtha from school, but Ramesh had little choice. They needed the work to survive. Once the family moved, however, they learned that much of the arrangement was a lie: They were brought to a sand mine, not a farm, and the small advance soon ballooned with ever-growing interest they couldn’t possibly repay. This was bonded labor slavery.

Every day, Ramesh, his wife, and the other slaves rose before sunrise to begin working in the mine. For 16 hours a day, they hauled mud and filtered the sand in putrid sewage water. The conditions left them constantly sick and exhausted, but they were never allowed to take breaks or leave for medical care. When Ramesh tried to ask about their low wages, the owner scolded and beat him badly. When he begged for his family to be released, again he was beaten and abused. Ramesh knew the owner was wealthy and well-connected in the community, so escape was not an option. There was nothing he could do.

Mamtha’s family withered from malnutrition before her eyes in the sand mine. Every morning at 5 a.m., she watched with deep sadness as her parents left for another day of hard labor—and spent her day in fear this would soon become her fate. She was left to watch her baby sister, Anjali, and other younger children to keep them out of the way. Her carefree childhood was taken over byresponsibility, hard work and crushed dreams.

Everything changed for Mamtha’s family on December 20, 2013, when the international Justice Mission, a charitable aid organization funded largely by donations from everyday people, worked with a local government team on a rescue operation at the sand mine. Seven adults and five children were brought out of the facility, and government officials filed paperwork to totally shut down the illegal mine. After a lengthy police investigation, the owner will now face charges for deceiving and enslaving these families.

The next day, the government granted release certificates to all of the laborers. These certificates officially absolve the false debts, document the slaves’ freedom, and help provide protection from the owner. The International Justice Mission aftercare staff helped take the released families back to their home villages to begin their new lives in freedom.

For Mamtha, starting over in her home village meant making those daydreams come true: She was enrolled back in school and could once again have a normal childhood. She’s got big plans for her future—dreams that never would have been possible if rescue had not come. She says confidently, “Today, I still want to be a doctor. Now that I am back in school, I know I can achieve my dream.”

Singer-Style Argument:

1. A great deal of extreme poverty exists, which involves suffering and death from hunger, lack of shelter, and lack of medical care. Roughly a third of human deaths (some 50,000 daily) are due to poverty-related causes.

2. If you can prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, you ought to do so and it is wrong not to do so.

3. By donating money to trustworthy and effective aid agencies that combat poverty, you can help prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.

4. Countries in the world are increasingly interdependent: you can improve the lives of people thousands of miles away with little effort.

5. Your geographical distance from poverty does not lessen your duty to help. Factors like distance and citizenship do not lessen your moral duty.

6. The fact that a great many people are in the same position as you with respect to poverty does not lessen your duty to help. Regardless of whether you are the only person who can help or whether there are millions of people who could help, this does not lessen your moral duty.

7. Therefore, you have a moral duty to donate money to trustworthy and effective aid agencies that combat poverty, and it is morally wrong not to do so.

For example, $20 spent in the United States could buy you a fancy restaurant meal or a concert ticket, or instead it could be donated to a trustworthy and effective aid agency that could use that money to reduce suffering due to extreme poverty. By donating $20 that you might otherwise spend on a fancy restaurant meal or a concert ticket, you could help prevent suffering due to poverty without sacrificing anything equally important. The amount of benefit you would receive from spending $20 in either of those ways is far less than the benefit that others would receive if that same amount of money were donated to a trustworthy and effective aid agency.

Although you cannot see the beneficiaries of your donation and they are not members of your community, it is still easy to help them, simply by donating money that you would otherwise spend on a luxury item. In this way, you could help to reduce the number of people in the world suffering from extreme poverty. You could help reduce suffering and death due to hunger, lack of shelter, lack of medical care, and other hardships and risks related to poverty.

With little effort, by donating to a trustworthy and effective aid agency, you can improve the lives of people suffering from extreme poverty. According to the argument above, even though the recipients may be thousands of miles away in a different country, you have a moral duty to help if you can do so without sacrificing anything of equal importance.


Kyle Thompson said...

Thanks for sharing this! This is an interesting study, and it looks really well done!

For fear of unknowingly introducing things dealt with in the paper itself, I'll preempt my comments by noting I've only read the blog post.

First, I find this kind of claim and the work behind it really compelling. Narrative has a special kind of hold on us humans, and I tend to think philosophical reflection might be impotent by itself in helping us improve as beings. In this particular case, I wonder, too, if it isn't just narrative doing the work. I sense some other asymmetries as well. Some observations (intended to build and provoke thoughts on this work, which itself is very thought-provoking):

1. The argument feels admonishing due to the second-personal approach. I am a bystander to the successful rescue in the story, but the argument is written to "you" (which is me, the reader). It can read as more of a scolding than an inspirational and encouraging argument.

2. The narrative involves resolution. There was this person who suffered in this horrible way, and now they don't (or at least they were lifted from this situation). The argument lacks that nature of resolve; it might make it seem as if one's donation contributes to mitigating a sea of suffering, but not resolving any one instance of it.

3. The narrative includes indisputable victims. Sadly, some people likely think poor people deserve their poverty in some way. But the narrative makes it clear that's not the case. Maybe that's doing some work for subjects?

4. The narrative bucks the worry that charities are ineffective. Say all you want in the argument that the charities do good stuff with my money, but I can always dispute this. Tell me someone was saved from slavery and there's no room to dispute the money was well used.

Thanks for sharing, and I'm interested in folks' thoughts on these ideas and others. In the meantime, I'll be considering whether I should pack up my philosophy books and just start writing philosophical fiction!

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Folk philosophy, circa 1954-1960: never try to sell a silk purse to a pig. This is my derivation from the original which stated: you can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear. I began learning philosophy when I was about six years old. Did not think in such terms until many years later, after reading works on the subject for around fifteen years.Modern philosophy attracts little attention from ordinary people, other than criticism, if that They just don't want to be bothered with distinctions,hypotheses and the like. So, your findings are spot on, from that perspective. I appreciate logic and order, even though I did not come from that sort of heritage. Not a sow's ear, no, but not a silk purse, either.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the kind words, Paul and Kyle!

Kyle, we didn't look at what features of the narratives helped them do the work. But your suggestions are plausible. In reading through 200-ish narratives from the websites of charitable organizations to select the four we used in the studies, we were struck that the ones that seemed most common and to seem most promising featured children or teens and ended on an uplifting or hopeful note.

Matt Lindauer said...

Hi Eric (and Chris and Josh), great paper! I thought I'd just continue the conversation here a bit. A few points:
1) Kyle's point about resolution also stood out to me when reading the paper. The description of Mamtha's plight prior to assistance is also very specific. So both prior to help and after help, the concreteness of what is going on in this successful story of aid is much greater than in the argument, where I think an argument could be give more in-depth descriptions of each of these without necessarily counting as narrative.
2) There is a considerable portion of explanatory text after the argument that you all added. I take it that this is partly to balance out length, but like Kyle, I'm also worried about the reactance that could occur if the argument is seen as admonishing people. By pitting charitable giving against specific goods that people might get, like a $20 dinner (not actually so fancy, sadly, in many cities now) or concert ticket, and being fairly repetitive of the argument text (even if as an explanation of it), this could further suppress motivation to give.
3) The line in the further explanatory text "they are not members of your community" stood out to me. Maybe I'm a rootless New Yorker, but the boundaries of community are much less obvious to me than this line suggests. When people have family members and close friends living across the world, what are the bounds of community? And by emphasizing that these people aren't in the same community, are we discouraging participants from seeing humanity as a global community (whereas the fact of interconnectedness is more and more acknowledged)?
4) Most centrally, as we discussed, it's really striking to me that arguments *are* again shown to motivate giving in some of your studies, even if not always as effectively as narratives. In fact, Experiment 4 suggests that some "strong arguments" like those from the argument contest could actually perform roughly as well as some narratives – better than some, in fact, although as you mentioned, the sample sizes would need to be larger and these comparisons would have to be planned. I certainly don't think arguments will always be effective, or be as effective as narratives, single-photo emotional appeals, or making people aware of default levels of giving, but when arguments are effective, and are roughly effective as emotional appeals or narratives in some studies, that seems really striking to me.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for these thoughtful comments, Matt!

On 1: Yes, I'm inclined to agree.

On 2 and 3: Right, we added text with the intention of balancing the length. The fancy dinner example is drawn from Singer's 1999 New York Times magazine article, so we thought it was in his spirit, but of course you're right that there might be features of the added text that turned people off while the shorter text would have been more effective.

On 4: Experiment 4 was a surprise to me, as is probably evident from the text of the published article, since the null results for the arguments had been so consistent in our earlier versions (though not in the charity contest). I'm still not sure what to make of it, but I'm hoping that further research -- including research I'm now doing with Fiery Cushman and other collaborators -- will help shed further light on what types of arguments might be more or less effective in motivating charitable giving. I'd also of course be delighted to hear about any further work you are doing on the topic!

Arnold said...

Is it the question: A fundamental is implied in philosophy but actual in self knowledge...
...that attitudes/truths/wisdom are for consciousness...

Can survey participants be ask to sacrifice a value of their own cognition...
...then we all could know when/what to give, caesar it's due, and unto others as to oneself...

Jan Clifford Lester said...

There are various problems with the "Singer-Style Argument". For one thing, it seems to abolish the idea of innocence. Rather than try to summarise my disagreements I just give this link:
I hope that doing so is not considered inappropriate (in any case, one can simply ignore the link, and I expect most people to do so).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for sharing this critique, Jan!