In the second part of the Trust in Me series, Ave founder Ellie Thompson investigates the psychology of giving, which could potentially inform how charities go about their fundraising.
Academic discussion into why people give dates back as far as the philosopher Adam Smith’s 1759 book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and the topic has gained significant traction over the past four decades among economists, anthropologists and sociologists. In his canonical essay The Gift, Mauss (1924) describes basic modes of exchange as being either ‘gift’ or ‘commodity’, the former being a critical process in the integration of society. While Mauss doesn’t explicitly prescribe a definition of ‘gift’, he does provide a clinical interpretation on the notion of ‘gifting’, presenting it as a transaction of items. Each gift is bound with “symbolic expression” located within a preformed social structure or group, the implication being that by giving an object to another actor within a social structure or group, the gift giver is asserting their role within the relationship as superior or inferior, depending on the gift, to that of the recipient. Therefore the gift acts as a semiotic object that can be decoded by the recipient. This indicates their importance in the gift giver’s social landscape and therefore how much their relationship is valued. He states that “the objects are never completely separated from the men who exchange them”.
Russell Belk supports Mauss’ theory and derives from it a more granular analysis, stating that the gifting process has four key functions: communication, social exchange, economic exchange and socialisation. According to Belk, gift giving can be formed by one or many of these functions and therefore has various levels at which symbolic associations within a relationship can be delivered. The exchange, therefore, is a vehicle to transmit complex messages within micro (actor-to-actor) or macro (actor-to-group) environments. Critical to Mauss’s theory, and espoused by Belk, is that a key component of the gift giving process is the implied reciprocity connoted by the social value invested in the gift itself. Alvin Gouldner corroborates this, stating that the individual actor is obliged “to give, to receive, and to reciprocate”. It’s this concept of reciprocation that gives rise to a gift economy whereby the status of the gift exchange actors and the value of the gift itself create market relations comparable to monetized spheres of exchange.
The idea of reciprocation is challenged by some academics who believe that the significance of the act supersedes the symbolic messaging communicated by the gift itself. This renders the connotation of the exchange, albeit influenced to some extent by the value and benefit of the gift, to be motivated by the self-serving benefits to the gift giver – the assumption being that there is no inherent expectation from the gift giver to receive a gift in return as they have already benefited from the act. In line with these critiques of Mauss’s theory, criticism of the gift economy is also voiced stating that as the exchange is located within a non-market society where there are no presupposed reciprocal expectations the gift exchange cannot constitute an economic system per-se.
Gary Davies distils these contrasting ideologies. Firstly, it is suggested that gifting can be ‘relational’, whereby the gift is semiotic, focusing on communicating and instilling reciprocity between the gift giver and recipient. Secondly, it is suggested that the gift can be ‘transactional’, whereby the behavioural motivations are oriented solely around the benefits for the gift giver. Burnett and Wood build on this, believing that the willingness to give to charity is “motivated … by totally self-serving factors”. In economic theory, this translates into positive value self-applied by the gift giver onto themselves in light of the value they believe they have contributed to society.
This form of pro-social behaviour is known as altruism – a term coined by Auguste Comte in the 1830’s. Altruistic behaviour presents some confusion around charitable giving, within which a participation paradox exists between the informed and rational decisions and the need to display unselfish behaviour in observed environments, according to Olsen. Following Olsen’s seminal book, The Logic of Collective Action (1965), increased attention has been paid to his claims around this altruistic discrepancy. Some academics suggest the primary motivation for charitable giving behaviour is to generate the “warm-glow” effect. However, James Andreoni believes that giving motivations, in some circumstances, are also affected by natural human desires; for example, earning kudos, prestige, status, and respect. This form of “impure altruism” is also seen in individuals who contribute as a way to avoid criticism from others, thus alleviating social philanthropic pressures.
Social exchange theory supports the notion of impure altruism, suggesting that when the individual self-benefits are higher than the value of the gift itself the primary motivation to undertake the act of giving is egoistic. However, it is suggested by Andreoni that, through lack of investigative study, there is an imperfect understanding of the differing dynamic of monetary donations as a form of charitable giving behaviour.