The Wydick Singer GiveDirectly Altruism Experiment

Timothy Ogden
Mar 30, 2016 · 4 min read

Recently I was invited by my alma mater, Davidson College, to give a talk as part of a seminar series for the senior economics majors. In the talk (last week)I tried to tell the roughly 100 year story of randomized control trials in development economics —ground I try to cover in the introduction and conclusion of my forthcoming book. I was too ambitious; the talk would have been better if I’d tried to do less.

There was one part of the talk which I think of as a success. I closed the talk with a variation of the Wydick Altruism Experiment: I presented the Peter Singer “child drowning” thought experiment (with 100% agreement from the students that they would jump into a lake to save a drowning child even if it meant ruining their phone), discussed the evidence for direct cash transfers and GiveDirectly, and then offered to donate $1000 to GiveDirectly if 20 of the 60 students would give up their phones for 2 weeks before leaving the room. Yes, I’m cruel enough to introduce a collective action problem into the mix. I should note that no one at GiveDirectly (nor Bruce for that matter) knew I was going to do this

I don’t know how Bruce handles the mechanics, but I turned up the pressure. First, a student questioned whether there was any marginal benefit to giving up phones since I was likely to donate to GiveDirectly anyway. So I pledged that the $1000 was an increase over the base rate and that I would not increase without action from the students.

Four students handed over their phones. I pushed on the moral intuition of an obligation to sacrifice a phone entirely if you could see the child but not being willing to give up a phone for two weeks. Then I dropped the threshold to 10 participants for a $1000 donation, but that I would continue giving $50 for each additional phone. The phones started coming in. We eventually got to 13 phones in hand.

More pressure. I asked all the students who had given up their phones to stand at the front of the auditorium. Then I sat down among the remaining students and said, “You’ll remember this for the rest of your lives. You’ll remember that you had the chance to get cash in the hands of the some of the poorest households on earth, just by giving up your phone for two weeks, and that the people in front of you were willing to do it, and you weren’t.” This is perhaps the most coercive thing I’ve ever done for fundraising purposes, but was trying to put as sharp a point as I could on the conflict between moral intuitions and short-term personal actions and sacrifices.

The pressure yielded an interesting outcome. A student brought up that my original set up perhaps undervalued the utility of the phone. So I changed the deal again. Now students could pledge to donate $80 to GiveDirectly and it would count toward the totals. I also offered to let the students who had given up their phones to buy them back with an $80 dollar pledge. I should note that Davidson has a strict and binding honor code. The requirement was that students sign an honor pledge to make the donation. I admit that I was making this up on the fly, which does a disservice to the author of Games in Economic Development.

We closed the class with 15 pledges and 7 phones (one student later came to exchange a pledge for her phone because the family she nannies for objected to her not having a phone). That’s a total of $3200 for poor Kenyan households.

Phones and Honor Pledges

After class, one student who appeared to be pretty upset approached me to ask whether I cared about motives at all. My response: “To the extent that I care about improving the lives of poor people in Kenya, no, I don’t care about your motives at all. To the extent that I care about your development as a human being and the need to confront the consequences of ideas as part of that development, yes, I do. And I hope that the exercise leads you to think about your and others’ motives.”

Later a student asked me what I thought the impact of the pledges/phone-sacrifice would be on future donations to GiveDirectly. Perhaps the relatively (psychologically) coercive approach would discourage future giving. I don’t know — and I don’t have any intuition about what direction it might go. I’m hoping that the team at GiveDirectly will help me track whether any of these students makes a follow-up donation.

Follow Up Notes:

  1. I’m very interested in feedback on this. I most likely would not have done the experiment the way I did if I had fully planned ahead. But I can also, ex-post, rationalize making the consequences of choices about how we spend, consume and give very real.
  2. The initial description elides a lot of back and forth that actually happened in the classroom. There were discussions about evidence, about pre-existing commitments to other causes, etc. In fact the hour and a half before the “experiment” was an extended discussion of how hard it is to generate and evaluate evidence.
  3. I should also note that the experiment was at the very end of the session, and it ended on time. There was an inherent escape hatch. Also, while attendance is essentially mandatory, as far as I know there are no grades related to what happened in the session and I certainly don’t have any influence on any grading that happens.
  4. There is opportunity to ask follow-up questions, so if you have questions you’d like asked, do let me know.