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Feeling like someone's watching doesn't increase online charity donations

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Artificial cues — such as images that suggest we are being watched — do not affect whether people will donate to online charities, according to New Zealand researchers. In the past, the perception that our actions were being monitored was associated with more pro-social behaviour like being more charitable. Any manipulation of images attempting to produce different emotions did not change charitable giving, but age, sex, culture and previous charity giving frequency did predict donations.

Journal/conference: Royal Society Open Science

Organisation/s: University of Auckland

Media Release

From: University of Auckland

Do online tools change online behaviour?

Do we behave better online if we think someone is watching?

A new study shows that, at least when it comes to charitable behaviour, traditional factors such as age or culture are more influential than whether or not we think we might be being watched.

Using the Amazon Mechanical Turk database to recruit 1535 online survey participants from three different global regions – India, the United States and Asia – a research team from the University of Auckland’s School of Psychology tested whether a range of images and photos had an effect on charitable giving.

The images included the human face in various forms, from angry to neutral to sad, with both male and female characteristics, and including images of groups of faces or a pair of eyes only.

The images were present on a web page as survey participants were given the choice of whether or not to donate a small amount of money to charity.

Study co-author Associate Professor Quentin Atkinson says none of the ‘monitoring cues’ such as human faces or simply a pair of watching eyes, worked to increase donations.

“The findings suggest it’s not so easy to increase good behaviour using online cues such as images, and that’s an interesting finding given the level of interest in looking at how we behave online and what might influence online behaviour,” he says.

“This study suggests that traditional factors, such as age, culture or ethnicity, and in particular a past history of giving to charity, have a greater effect on how altruistic we choose to be.”

Study co-author Dr Alex Taylor, also from the University’s School of Psychology, says dozens of different cues were used to test people’s response including more abstract images of the human face. The findings were then tested against a control group.

“In some previous studies a pair of watching eyes have promoted cooperation,” he says, “but our study suggests that the effect of monitoring cues may be relatively weak or non-existent in an online environment."

Press Release: The Royal Society

No evidence that a range of artificial monitoring cues influence online donations to charity in an MTurk sample

Monitoring cues, such as an image of a face or pair of eyes, have been found to increase prosocial behaviour in several studies. However, other studies have found little or no support for this effect. Here, we examined whether monitoring cues affect online donations to charity while manipulating the emotion displayed, the number of watchers and the cue type. We also include as statistical controls a range of likely covariates of prosocial behaviour. Using the crowdsourcing Internet marketplace, AmazonMechanical Turk (AMT), 1535 participants completed our survey and were given the opportunity to donate to charity while being shown an image prime. None of the monitoring primes we tested had a significant effect on charitable giving. By contrast, the control variables of culture, age, sex and previous charity giving frequency did predict donations. This work supports the importance of cultural differences and enduring individual differences in prosocial behaviour and shows that a range of artificial monitoring cues do not reliably boost online charity donation on MTurk.


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