Finding someone’s inner altruist

The effectiveness of specific, direct appeals over general, the-world-will-be-better statements has been an important academic lesson for policymakers. More evidence of this finding, with a small but important wrinkle, comes from a Federal Reserve Bank of Boston working paper on blood donation.

As part of a blood donor awareness campaign, a random group of people were given a flyer that asked them in a yes-or-no question to make a blood donation as part of a “strong active decision treatment,” and then to offer a specific time and place for their donation to take place. Another “weak active decision” group were also asked to make a yes-or-no decision, but were also given a specific option to not make a decision about blood donation at that time. Finally, a third group, the control group, received no request for a blood donation.

Donations increased among those without strongly formed preferences, not among those without previous strong preferences, an important distinction that the authors emphasize to policymakers. Direct appeals, in other words, are likely to be most successful in thin, low information environment, not when people have already made up their minds.

The strong (active decision) also affects people’s stated willingness to donate blood relative to a weak (active decision) intervention if they have no fully formed preferences about the issue. In the field of blood donation, the effect on the preference statement is, of course, less relevant. However, it indicates that an (active decision) might be effective in other social areas, like post-mortem organ donation or individual saving behavior, where a statement with low immediate costs puts people on a donor list or in a savings plan. This might be seen as an ethically attractive alternative to presumed consent.

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