Woman holds a dollar bill in each hand above tip jars on a counter.

Having a choice boosts voluntary giving

While purchasing coffee a few years ago, Katherine Du noticed the unusual way the cafe’s baristas were soliciting tips. Instead of using only one jar, two jars sat side by side on the counter. One was labeled “Star Wars” and the other, “Star Trek.”

Soon, she started seeing this method applied to charitable giving, too. Potential donors were asked to choose “chocolate vs. vanilla” or “mountains vs. beach.”

So Du, an assistant professor of marketing in the Lubar School of Business, partnered with two research colleagues to launch a study about the phenomenon. The researchers discovered that framing the act of giving as a choice between two options was far more successful than traditional attempts at inducing voluntary giving.

The choice-based strategy, which they call “dueling preferences,” not only attracts more givers, but also significantly increases the amounts they give. That’s because it gives consumers the chance to reveal something about themselves through spending.

“Neurological studies have shown that we feel rewarded when we get to share something about who we are,” Du says. “People love to express their identity so much that they’re actually willing to pay for an opportunity.”

However, Du and her research partners – Jacqueline Rifkin at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Jonah Berger at the University of Pennsylvania – also learned that the tactic had to be implemented with some key points in mind.

The duel topic must feel identity-expressive to the group being targeted. For example, tip jars merely labeled “A” and “B” didn’t produce the effect, whereas topics like sports and pet types usually work well because those interests have broad appeal.

Also, the effect was diminished or erased when the choice involved controversial topics. And the effect waned when consumers previously had a chance to express themselves. In other words, once they’d already shared some of their personal preferences, offering a dueling preference was less likely to prompt giving.