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The Science Of Viral Charity Stunts: What Drives Donation, And Why?

Photo courtesy of Hot Gossip Italia via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic. 

There are many factors that drive donation, even aside from generosity and compassion. What are they, and what are their impacts?

To get to the root of this question, let’s take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge as a pertinent example.

In the summer of 2014, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge emerged, prompting social media users to dare one another to film themselves dumping buckets of ice on their heads and/or donate money to the the ALS Association.

The campaign has already raised millions of dollars toward researching amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a debilitating and fatal disease that triggers a slow nerve paralysis, and has no known cure.

Since the campaign’s kick off on July 29, 2014, well over $20 million has been donated in less than a month.

Essentially, this is proof that viral campaigns work– especially when they’re for a good cause.

There are, like it or not, valid criticisms of the viral stunt.

One criticism is that the challenge is framed as an alternative to donating. This leaves a taste of farcical altruism in which the charity aspect is an afterthought to goofy antics, critics say.

That’s not to mention the drought in the western U.S., and an estimated 6 millions gallons of water wasted (the daily usage of 19,000 homes)– making this a first world leisure-display that might ring as especially insulting to the many people around the world without clean drinking water.

Others have described the campaign as cannibalistic in nature, meaning that the overflow of donations to one charity statistically takes away from the flow to other causes.

Criticisms aside, it’s hard to find too much fault in campaigns that are aimed to do good. Even if the motivations seem silly, the impact of awareness is clear– clear enough that other causes are hoping to imitate it, anyway.

What, then, is the recipe for massive charity awareness? Here are some notable ingredients.

Suffering for a cause: Oddly, this isn’t close to the first time self humiliation or discomfort has been a key component charity awareness. It’s actually a rather common trend.

For example, adventurist Bear Grylls dined at 25,000 feet in the air in a hot air balloon in just a suit and tie to raise money for the Prince’s Trust. He had to wear an oxygen mask to breathe while eating a formal dinner, all in in freezing temperatures.

Entertainment: A huge aspect of the Ice Bucket Challenge’s success is that it’s fun and entertaining. This goes along with the suffering component in away, as watching others embarrass themselves is a scientifically proven form of vicarious entertainment, and doing it ourselves is thrilling. Which leads us to the next ingredient…

Involvement: We all want to feel involved, or else FOMO wouldn’t’ be a thing. The need to feel involved on social media is linked to a desire for connection with others; involvement in altruistic causes, similarly, has been shown to make people feel happy about making a difference. Which leads us to…

Internet culture: But if simply donating would in theory boost self-esteem, and be more impactful financially, why show the world? In the light of society’s obsession with self-documentation, sharing videos of one’s self enduring an icy deluge may be part of our unconscious urge to cultivate a favorable image in a digital setting. See also above: entertainment, fun.

Celebrity/peer pressure: We’re lumping these together because whether it’s just your friends, politicians, or celebrities doing it, that counts as peer pressure, in which the actions of a few important individuals and/or consensus influence the actions of many.

This sort of hive mentality has astounding impact. At least in the case of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, it’s being used to amplify good will, and not the destruction of the universe.

Empathy: Lastly, most humans are empathetic by nature. When we see videos and read testimonials of people who have suffered, we care because we are social animals that are wired to sympathize and relate with our own species, as well as others, as a survival mechanism.

Also, as Facebook’s recent emotional contagion study has revealed, social media users are more apt to post positive things if their feed is primarily positive. Monkey see, monkey do(onate). So carry on, ice bucketers. Science is on your side.

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
Jennifer Markert