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People will behave badly if it’s not too much work…and if no one is watching

by Alexandre Erler

An interesting article recently published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science concludes that people are more likely to transgress moral norms if doing so does not require an explicit action on their part. The researchers, from the University of Toronto, conducted two studies: in one of these, they asked participants whether they would volunteer to help a student with a learning disability complete a problem-solving task. One group of participants had only the option of checking a 'yes' or 'no' box that popped up on the computer. The second group of people could follow a link at the bottom of the page to volunteer their help or simply press 'continue' to move on to the next page of their questionnaire. Participants were five times more likely to volunteer when they had to expressly pick either 'yes' or 'no.'


According to one of the study’s authors, “it seems to be more difficult for people to explicitly deny their help, by clicking 'no,' than it is for them to simply click 'continue' and elude doing the right thing. We suspect that emotion plays an important role in driving this effect”. One of the practical conclusions drawn by the researchers is that simply manipulating the active–passive framing of a task can influence people’s level of pro-social behavior. As a concrete illustration of this, they suggest that charitable organizations could increase the number of donations by taking a more active approach to online solicitation—for example, by having a prominent ‘‘Donate Now’’ button on their website, or a pop-up that makes visitors choose between ‘‘yes’’ and ‘‘no’’ options for donation, in contrast to the more low-key approach currently prevalent.


Without necessarily wishing to challenge the researchers’ conclusions, which are clearly interesting in their own right, I wonder if their study might not also provide evidence for a distinct phenomenon, namely the fact that people’s degree of altruism is partly influenced by their concern for their reputation. To determine this, we would need to know whether the two different situations the participants were presented with might or not have led them to make different assumptions about the social consequences of their choice. Those who had the choice of clicking either yes or no to the volunteering opportunity might thus have assumed that their answer would be counted with the others as part of their online questionnaire and that it would be visible to the researchers, meaning that these would know if the participant had decided to be selfish on that occasion. On the other hand, those who had the option of clicking on a link to volunteer or simply click “continue” might have assumed that the volunteering opportunity was quite separate from the study and that the researchers would not know if they had decided to volunteer or not – or at least that this information would be much less salient to them if they did have access to it. Given that people might likely be concerned with what “important” figures like those in charge of the study might think of them, it would make sense that those who faced the first of these two situations (the “active transgression” group) would be more motivated to volunteer.


My conjecture about the influence of such a factor in that particular case might not be correct. But if it were, it would not be very surprising: there is already good evidence that people tend to behave more altruistically when they believe their behavior is being publicly scrutinized. I remember Peter Singer saying, in one of his Uehiro Lectures delivered in Oxford in 2007, that Jesus’s injunction to do good deeds in secret is not necessarily a desirable social norm to promote. Quite rather, placing people in situations where their choice to help or not to help is under the public eye can be expected to increase altruistic behavior. American academics have thus proposed that the Internal Revenue Service (responsible for tax collection and tax law enforcement in the US) should create a “donation registry” that would publish the ratio of a person’s contributions to annual income (assuming the person had consented to it). They suggest that charities should apply social pressures to public figures so that they agree to be listed on the registry (as successfully happened in the case of Al Gore), and that this influence might then spread to other taxpayers (Cooter and Broughman 2005).


Such a proposal is on the right track and deserves much more public consideration than it appears to have received so far. In England today, two in five people do not currently make a regular charity donation ; things seem even more disappointing in the United States (Cooter and Broughman 2005). But people tend to behave more generously when they know they are under public scrutiny. Therefore, we have good reason to reconsider the priority we currently give to individuals’ privacy in such matters, given the significant potential benefits at stake.




Cooter, R. and B. Broughman (2005). Charity, Publicity, and the Donation Registry. The Economists’ Voice 2 (3), 4.


Teper, R. and Inzlicht, M. (2010). Active Transgressions and Moral Elusions: Action Framing Influences Moral Behavior. Social Psychological and Personality Science, published online 4 November 2010, DOI: 10.1177/1948550610389338.


University of Toronto (2010, November 24). Why do people behave badly? Maybe it's just too easy. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 6, 2010, from


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3 Comment on this post

  1. In these times of crisis, cuts and reducing power of the state, your article is very welcome Alexandre. What a pity that it doesn’t go far enough.
    If we really strive for efficacy I suspect that simply displaying a list of role-model givers is not sufficient. Much more effective would be to display publicly a list of every person who hasn’t made a charitable donation in the last 6 months. This could be via a dedicated internet site, or on gigantic panels in front of each Town Hall, or published as a special edition of the local press.
    Of course, at a later stage we could refine this and take people’s ability to contribute into account by establishing a scale which encouraged the richer to contribute more, and exempted certain poor people from this obligation. (In contemporary social psychology, I believe this would be called “nudging”.)
    In order to avoid unjustly shaming people who have in fact given (and avoid the plethora of libel cases which would arise), we could then require that there be some independent method of verifying incomes and donations. The whole scheme could be put on a legal platform which would ensure justice and accountability. This could be taken in hand by a formally elected and accountable representative body.
    We could even coin a word based on the Latin “taxare” (“evaluate, estimate, assess, handle,” “censure, charge,” – probably a frequentative form of tangere “to touch) and call it taxation …
    …. Oops, isn’t this where we came in ?

  2. I suspect that the kind of registry suggested might be a rather blunt instrument when it comes to measuring charitable contribution. First of all we would need to decide what is meant by charitable and then what a contribution consists of. In the context of the registry it seems to mean hard cash. However, does the giving have to be purely in monetary terms? What of a person who does not contribute financially to a charity, but instead volunteers at a shelter or soup kitchen. What about those people who work for aid organisations and get paid for it?

    Moral behaviour and contribution probably comes in many forms and there is, at least, one way in which financial giving might actually decrease moral behaviour. That is if parting with the cold hard cash somehow makes individuals feel as if they have paid their moral dues so to speak. If they feel that they do their quotient of good through money then it is possible that this might reduce (good) moral behaviour in other areas. This could be especially so if, taking into account social conformity, the message from peers and societal role-models is that paying an amount and having your name on the register discharges one’s moral obligations towards those worse off. That is, of course, something that would need to be determined empirically.

  3. Muireann: your point about the risk of unwittingly decreasing moral behavior is interesting, though as you say the reality of such a risk ought to be verified empirically. On the specific issue of volunteering, the number of people doing volunteering work is typically lower than the number of people who give to charity, so I suspect that a significant proportion of people who might be motivated to give, or to give more, by the introduction of such a registry would not be at risk of dropping their volunteering work as a result of this, given that they were not doing any in the first place. True, people with limited financial means who cannot afford to give much to charity but are doing a substantial amount of volunteering should not be stigmatized by such a system, so perhaps it might be good to include in the registry e.g. people’s annual number of hours spent volunteering, rather than just the proportion of their income they’ve spent on charitable donations.

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