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1 min read

Why we give to charity

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Ben.  The little boy's name is Ben.  He looks so happy.  So, why is his father heartbroken? 


As the camera pans out, we find out, "Ben's dying" says Dad.  "You don't know how it feels to know how little time you have left."  With that statement, Ben's father has merged himself with his son; it is as if the father is dying. 


This text comes from a video used with permission from St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital to understand why people give to charity by measuring brain activity.   My lab first identified the neural correlates of immersion by drawing blood from several hundred people before and after they watched a 100 second video of Ben and his father.  Half the people who watched the video donated money to St. Jude's.  The question is why?


The video informs viewers that Ben only has a month to live, so donations cannot save Ben's life.  There are many other "Bens" out there of course, but will donations save any of them?  The data showed that people whose brains spiked neurochemicals associated with attention and emotional connection nearly always donated.  If one of these neural responses was missing, donations were absent.  How did we know for sure?  We had people watch many other videos about people in need and captured the attentional and emotional responses using electrical signals from the nervous system.  We even accentuated the emotional responses by safely infusing synthetic oxytocin into participants' brains.  This increased donations by 56% compared to those given a placebo.  


Immersion moves us.  Immersive advertisements move us to buy products; immersive movies move us watch them over again and perhaps shed a tear, and immersive classrooms improve students' grades.  Immersion is also a reason people sacrifice to help others. 


A recent study we did with for charitable giving aggregator Click and Pledge showed people 11 videos for charities.  Participants could stop watching the video at any time and had a chance to donate to support the featured organization.  We found immersion motivated people to watch videos longer and this increased donations.  In fact, we could predict when people stopped watching. There was a pronounced and statistically significant immersion spike just before stopping. The bigger the spike, the bigger the donation.


Humans want to feel, want to be moved, and want to help.  Whether it is an in-store experience, a meeting, a song, or a plea for donations, immersive experience move us to be a little closer to each other.  That's a pretty good outcome from creating immersion.


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