Sunday, September 07, 2008

i'll take your money

today i encountered a young women on a street corner asking for donations to a charity. the charity was an sf homeless charity that supports homeless people. here's the pitch:

charity girl: in sf, 5 homeless shelters were shut down or nearly shut down because of budget cuts...
omar: mmm yes yes
charity girl: [more details about the shutdown].. we are looking for donations.
omar: no doubt.
charity girl: $160 would support ...
omar: i'm not giving that much!
cg: you can give just $40 to support...
omar: nope.
cg: well, you could give even $5 and we'd mark your name here in this list with a $ sign, indicating that you gave.
omar: thanks, but no thanks.

that's where it ended. now, the reason i couldn't stand this is because she was implementing a standard method, used before the dawn of time but outlined nicely by the psychologist robert cialdini. she was making me somewhat sympathetic, throwing out a wildly ridiculouslous number that few people would support based on a 2 minute explanation, and then reducing that number to something that sounds reasonable ($40, $5..) when compared to the ridiculous number ($160). i was immune to this tactic because i have read about it, and frankly feel that i need way more information before i'm giving these people any money.

so, i started to tell this story to a friend. turns out, this friend gave the same girl $40! oy. total affirmation of the technique. my friend was trying to justify it ("even if it's a rip off, the girl could use the money.. if not, the charity gets useful money," etc..) but the fact of the matter is it's almost certainly the case that my friend got manipulated, and didn't even know it. this is a friend who i think of as highly analytical, which i think is yet more proof that such an action was prompted by behavioral responses that were manipulated.


David said...

This is an interesting problem. I also dislike being harassed and manipulated into giving to charity. Acts of love and brotherhood are better when freely expressed.

That said, I wonder, how is this manipulation any different than other kinds of sales? Would it be less offensive if you were "manipulated" by a slick ad to buy a new gadget? You are aware of the manipulation of commercials. Or do you hold charities to a higher standard?

omar said...

oh no, not a higher standard. in fact, i think psychologists have the made the same point i'm about to make: when you realize you're being duped, it's very hard to get over that and go in for it, even if it's a good thing.

so, very well, this might've been the best thing in the world. but it's hard for me to see it that way when the script is matching something i consider manipulative in my head.

well, don't worry, i'll grow beyond this. as you say, i still buy gadgets and what not, so obviously i've gotten over all that manipulation and have learned to love the bomb. is that where media literacy goes? acceptance?

queenbee said...

So, Omar, do you see a way that this kind of manipulation can be tied to teaching/positive application? Isn't that what your sensed environments are supposed to do? Manipulate the public by presenting data that should have some kind of affect?

omar said...


oh most definitely. there's a classic study on the messaging that most encourages people to, for instance, leave their towels on the racks in a hotel (so they aren't cleaned that day). the methods that are more likely to trigger people to do what you want them to do are somewhat known, and are certainly deployed for what we think of as good causes.

in fact, what i've been studying to some degree are these methods and how they've been integrated into the data heavy world.

all that said, there's a literacy component here.. once you know about these methods and see them being used, you become a little bit immune and are skeptical.. that's certainly what happened here.