Has the “warm glow” burned out? (2/ 2014)

Recently, the Charities Aid Foundation, published the results of its global survey on philanthropy in 135 countries around the world, the World Giving Index 2013. According to this survey the US is – not surprisingly – the most philanthropic country in the world. On 2nd rank we find – much more surprising – the developing country Myanmar (where the millions of the country’s monks live alone from donations). Germany is at No. 22 in this ranking – two places behind Nigeria (!).

To my astonishment, none of the Scandinavian countries – Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway – show up in the top 20 of the ranking, even though these countries are known as examples of solidarity and social justice. The only logical explanation for this seems to be:  In the Scandinavian countries social projects are funded by the notoriously high taxes. Therefore, people don’t need to donate.

But if this explanation for the Scandinavians’ rather disappointing performance at the World Giving Index is true, it delivers an important indication that selfish motives – and in particular the activation of the reward center in the brain by dopamine surges, the so-called “warm glow” – plays a minor role in donor motivation than most behavioral scientists and fundraisers think.

If they did play a major role, the high taxes in Scandinavia should not significantly affect fundraising and philanthropy. Because dopamine is only made ​​to glow when we voluntarily give or do something good. Not when we comply with requirements such as taxes. For a real altruist, however, it is crucial that people in need receive any help and secondary where the resources come from. When the resources come from non-philanthropic sources, such as taxes, they don’t see a need to donate.

Maybe, it is that simple: When people donate, they don’t do so out of a hundred of sophisticated –  more or less self-centered – motives, desires and chemical reactions in their brain, but simply because they wish to help other people. You may call it altruism. Or with this beautiful latin word: benevolence.