The hidden joy of giving — anonymous donations may be good for group stability

Why give to charity? Rarely a day goes by without fresh fundraising appeals flooding our inboxes, from co-workers running marathons dressed as cartoon characters to distant cousins climbing even more distant mountains. You might contribute for any number of reasons: familial duty, perhaps, or to boost your reputation as a generous person.

Evolutionary explanations of altruism suggest that generosity brings gains in social status or influence. If this were the case, when donating on the open plain of the internet, people would be expected to publicly contribute above the average. But Nichola Raihani of University College London found quite the opposite: the princely as well as the stingy were more likely to donate anonymously.

In her study published in Biology Letters, Dr Raihani scraped data on 3,816 individual donations from British fundraising website Bmycharity (owned by the charity Help for Heroes), 4.6% of which were anonymous. She found that around twice as many people donating within the lowest and highest quartiles chose to anonymise their contributions compared to those giving more moderate amounts. Donations to 110 appeals for 36 charities registered in the UK ranged in size from £1 to £2,500, with £10 being the most frequently donated amount.

The results suggest people may want to hide their relatively over- or under-cooperative behaviours if they violate established social norms. Those donating to flaunt their fabulous wealth run the risk of making others look bad, or starting an arms race of generosity where altruism rockets to exorbitant levels. Getting caught up in this competitive kind of altruism may impose undesirably high standards of behaviour on group members. Such cases may lead to sanctions. Previous research looking at contributions to a public good found that miserly and flashy participants were often punished or exiled.

Following the crowd seems to be an important hallmark of human social groups. Guests at a hotel in the American Southwest took part—without knowing—in an experiment that allowed researchers to figure out what prompts the reuse of towels. When told that the majority of other people in the hotel reused their towels, guests were more likely to do so themselves.

In a similar fashion, people tend to give more under the gaze of others. An experiment conducted in 30 Dutch churches found that contributions were higher when congregations passed around open collection baskets rather than ‘closed’ velvet bags. People instantly became more generous when their neighbours could see how much they gave, although this effect petered out over time.

Of course what happens online does not necessarily stay online. In the real world, fundraisers may know exactly who in their social network ‘anonymously’ sweetened the virtual pot. Large contributions may, on the surface, be stripped of all egotism, seeming all the more impressive—although these donors would receive a subtle boost in reputation without breaking any unspoken rules.

Tapping into what drives donations could be useful for fundraising websites like Bmycharity. They helped raise over £28m in a ten year period since launching in 2000. During 2012, online fundraising formed 30% of charitable donations in the UK.

All scenarios lead to a delicate social balancing act between hiding an ungenerous nature to protect reputations and tempering large donations so not to risk the ire of groupmates. Social groups seem to hold norms of appropriate charitable behaviour; the best course of action may be to advertise cooperative behaviour, but not too much. Sometimes you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.


Reference: Raihani — 2014. Hidden altruism in a real-world setting Biology Letters. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2013.0884