The Complicated Logic Behind Donating to a Food Pantry Rather than Giving a Hungry Person Cash
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Policy Social Impact Jan 3, 2018

The Com­pli­cat­ed Log­ic Behind Donat­ing to a Food Pantry Rather than Giv­ing a Hun­gry Per­son Cash

If we were in need, we’d like­ly want mon­ey. So what accounts for that difference?

Donating food is paternalistic aid

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Juliana Schroeder

Adam Waytz

Nicholas Epley

Let’s say you are a pol­i­cy­mak­er who wants to fight the obe­si­ty epi­dem­ic. Should you give peo­ple the tools to make bet­ter deci­sions, such as list­ing calo­rie counts on menus? Or should you ban cer­tain types of junk food alto­geth­er, per­haps for­bid­ding the sale of jum­bo-sized sug­ary sodas?

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Ban­ning junk food prob­a­bly feels like it will have more of an impact. But now take the per­spec­tive of a reg­u­lar cit­i­zen. Would you still pre­fer to have your drink choic­es dic­tat­ed to you?

This demon­strates a com­mon phe­nom­e­non: when peo­ple are on the receiv­ing end of help, they tend to pre­fer some­thing called agen­tic aid, which allows them to choose how to respond, says Adam Waytz, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at Kel­logg. Yet peo­ple often pre­fer the oppo­site—pater­nal­is­tic poli­cies — when help­ing others.

New research by Waytz and col­leagues sug­gests a pos­si­ble expla­na­tion for both behaviors. 

The researchers found that peo­ple show more sup­port for pater­nal­is­tic poli­cies if they believe recip­i­ents are not very men­tal­ly capa­ble — that is, if recip­i­ents seem unlike­ly to exer­cise self-con­trol, plan ahead, and make thought­ful deci­sions. Yet par­tic­i­pants tend­ed to think more high­ly of their own men­tal capa­bil­i­ties than of oth­ers’, thus express­ing stronger sup­port for agen­tic aid for themselves. 

The study does not tell us whether one form of aid is always bet­ter. It depends on the sit­u­a­tion, Waytz says. 

We need to be aware of how judg­ments of men­tal capac­i­ty inform our deci­sions,” Waytz says. Choos­ing pater­nal­is­tic poli­cies for our­selves might not always be such a bad idea.”

Inter­est­ing­ly, his team also found the reverse: par­tic­i­pants thought that peo­ple who received pater­nal­is­tic aid are less men­tal­ly capa­ble. The find­ing sug­gests that giv­ing this type of help, such as offer­ing food instead of mon­ey to the poor, may hurt the recip­i­ents’ pub­lic image.

Pater­nal­is­tic Poli­cies and Men­tal Capacity

Pre­vi­ous research sug­gests that giv­ing cash direct­ly to the poor is an effec­tive way to improve their well-being.

Peo­ple seem to know what to do with their mon­ey,” Waytz says. For instance, recip­i­ents might need funds to start a busi­ness more than they need the food or job train­ing offered by a charity. 

But char­i­ties often give pater­nal­is­tic aid, part­ly because it is the sta­tus quo. Donors also may fear that recip­i­ents will spend mon­ey friv­o­lous­ly. We don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly trust the peo­ple who are in pover­ty to get them­selves out,” Waytz says. 

On the flip side, peo­ple may not like receiv­ing pater­nal­is­tic aid because they feel it threat­ens their per­son­al free­dom or harms their self-esteem. 

Waytz and his col­lab­o­ra­tors, Juliana Schroed­er of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, and Nicholas Epley of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, won­dered if people’s beliefs about the recip­i­ents’ men­tal capac­i­ty also might explain these tendencies. 

The researchers con­duct­ed an online study with 100 peo­ple through Ama­zon Mechan­i­cal Turk. Par­tic­i­pants read about the real agen­tic char­i­ty GiveDi­rect­ly, which gives mon­ey to poor peo­ple in Kenya and Uganda.

Par­tic­i­pants then rat­ed the charity’s effec­tive­ness, as well as ele­ments of the recip­i­ents’ men­tal capac­i­ty, such as their self-restraint and abil­i­ty to plan. Final­ly, par­tic­i­pants received 25 cents and could choose to donate some or all of it to GiveDi­rect­ly or to the Red Cross, which pro­vides more pater­nal­is­tic aid. Par­tic­i­pants keep any mon­ey they chose not to donate.

The par­tic­i­pants’ view of recip­i­ents’ men­tal capa­bil­i­ty made a dif­fer­ence. When peo­ple gave the recip­i­ents high­er scores for men­tal capa­bil­i­ty, they tend­ed to think that GiveDi­rect­ly would do a bet­ter job of help­ing the poor. They also gave more mon­ey to that charity. 

If par­tic­i­pants learned that an orga­ni­za­tion had pro­vid­ed refugees with food or shel­ter, rather than cash, they believed the refugees were men­tal­ly weaker. 

Anoth­er study found that mak­ing the recip­i­ents seem more capa­ble boosts people’s sup­port for agen­tic aid. In this online study, par­tic­i­pants read about GiveDirectly’s aid to an anonymized African coun­try dubbed Nia. One group read sta­tis­tics about Nians stat­ed in a way that empha­sized their lack of men­tal capac­i­ty, for exam­ple, that 14 per­cent are illit­er­ate. The oth­er group read the same infor­ma­tion stat­ed in a way that empha­sized their men­tal capac­i­ty, for exam­ple, that 86 per­cent of Nians are literate.

Peo­ple in the sec­ond group rat­ed GiveDirectly’s effec­tive­ness about one point high­er (on a sev­en-point scale) than those in the first group. They also donat­ed more mon­ey to GiveDi­rect­ly than to the Red Cross, while par­tic­i­pants who read the neg­a­tive descrip­tions did the opposite. 

Me vs. Them

Next, the researchers explored people’s sup­port for pater­nal­is­tic poli­cies when applied to them­selves ver­sus others. 

Peo­ple might assume, I can think for myself, I have good self-con­trol,” Waytz says. But they might per­ceive oth­ers as men­tal­ly weak­er, and deem a pater­nal­is­tic pol­i­cy a bet­ter fit. 

To explore this, the team divid­ed online study par­tic­i­pants into two groups. One group was told to imag­ine that their gov­er­nor was con­sid­er­ing leg­is­la­tion on issues such as cred­it card debt, while the oth­er group was asked to pre­tend they were the gov­er­nor of Ohio and need­ed to decide which poli­cies would most ben­e­fit res­i­dents. Par­tic­i­pants had to choose between pater­nal­is­tic mea­sures, such as impos­ing max­i­mum cred­it lim­its, and agen­tic mea­sures, such as offer­ing infor­ma­tion about pay­ment penalties. 

The first group, which imag­ined they would be the recip­i­ents of new poli­cies, sup­port­ed the pater­nal­is­tic option on aver­age 1.77 times out of five. But the sec­ond group, which was act­ing as pol­i­cy­mak­er, picked that option 2.36 times out of five. 

The Turkey Test

Yet, despite our rosiest visions of our­selves, our self-restraint does fail some­times. So the team pounced on study par­tic­i­pants at a vul­ner­a­ble moment: Thanksgiving. 

Vir­tu­al­ly all of us have expe­ri­enced a self-con­trol lapse,” Waytz says. After you just gorged your­self, pre­sum­ably, on turkey and pie and pota­toes, then your per­cep­tion of your­self would be low­ered in that regard.” 

The researchers sent a sur­vey to 100 par­tic­i­pants a cou­ple days before Thanks­giv­ing; anoth­er 98 peo­ple received it Thanks­giv­ing night. Recip­i­ents answered ques­tions about the effec­tive­ness of pater­nal­is­tic and agen­tic poli­cies to pro­mote healthy eat­ing, such as mak­ing restau­rant por­tion sizes small­er ver­sus run­ning ads about the issue. 

Then peo­ple rat­ed their agree­ment with state­ments about their men­tal capac­i­ty, such as Every­thing I do is on pur­pose” and I have excel­lent self-control.” 

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, the par­tic­i­pants’ aver­age rat­ing of their men­tal strength dropped from 4.55 out of 7 before Thanks­giv­ing to 4.17 after­ward. At the same time, the esti­mates of pater­nal­is­tic poli­cies’ effec­tive­ness rose from 3.50 to 3.99.

In oth­er words, the post-hol­i­day group was more will­ing to admit, Okay, yeah, I guess pater­nal­is­tic poli­cies are some­what use­ful, even for me,” Waytz says. 

So if a man­ag­er wants to enforce strict work­place rules — say, block­ing social-media web­sites — they might suc­ceed if such mea­sures are sug­gest­ed the day after peo­ple have been glued to their Face­book and Twit­ter feeds dur­ing a news scandal. 

Eras­ing a Stigma

What about the reverse? Does the type of aid that peo­ple receive affect how oth­ers per­ceive their men­tal capacity? 

An online exper­i­ment sug­gests it does. If par­tic­i­pants learned that an orga­ni­za­tion had pro­vid­ed refugees with food or shel­ter, rather than cash, they believed the refugees were men­tal­ly weak­er. And they thought recip­i­ents were more like­ly to waste mon­ey on drugs and alcohol. 

When char­i­ties offer peo­ple pater­nal­is­tic help, oth­ers are going to infer that those peo­ple don’t know how to think for them­selves,” Waytz says. Thus, orga­ni­za­tions could make a dent in the stig­ma sur­round­ing the poor by giv­ing agen­tic aid. 

The study does not tell us whether one form of aid is always bet­ter. It depends on the sit­u­a­tion, Waytz says. 

For instance, default enroll­ment in com­pa­ny retire­ment plans — a pater­nal­is­tic tac­tic—tends to result in high­er par­tic­i­pa­tion. But research about the poor sug­gests that the best way to help some­one in need is just give them mon­ey and get out of the way,” he says. 

So are peo­ple over­es­ti­mat­ing their own men­tal abil­i­ties or under­es­ti­mat­ing oth­ers’? Both like­ly play a role, Waytz says, but the lat­ter effect may be stronger because peo­ple do not know much about oth­ers’ efforts to plan ahead and make con­sid­ered decisions. 

You walk around with a spot­light on your own mind at all times,” he says. We under­es­ti­mate oth­ers’ men­tal capac­i­ty because we don’t see all the times that oth­ers have been thoughtful.” 

Featured Faculty

Adam Waytz

Assistant Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Roberta Kwok is a freelance science writer based near Seattle.

About the Research

Schroeder, Juliana, Adam Waytz, and Nicholas Epley. “Endorsing Help for Others That You Oppose for Yourself: Mind Perception Alters the Perceived Effectiveness of Paternalism.” Journal of Experimental Psychology. doi: 10.1037/xge0000320.

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