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The Ice Bucket Challenge is currently sweeping the Internet, in which people are challenged to either donate $100 to an organization focussed on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease) OR record themselves dumping a bucket of ice water on their heads and donating only $10.
What could possibly be better than people having fun giving to a good cause? Shitting on those people and that cause, of course! As with any viral charity-focused meme these days, it’s attracted a lot of scrutiny, like in this Vice article by Arielle Pardes who says that “there are a lot of things wrong with the Ice Bucket Challenge, but most the annoying is that it’s basically narcissism masked as altruism.” Pardes claims that people who participate in the challenge aren’t actually doing anything, but are instead just pretending to do something.
Unfortunately for Pardes but fortunately for those suffering from ALS, people have been doing something in the form of donating to a very good charity. The ALS Association reported $13.3 million in donations between July 29 and August 9th, with 260,000 new donors. This compares to $1.7 million in funding raised for the same period the year prior.
But maybe, as William MacAskill suggests in a critical article on Quartz, half of that money was going to be donated, anyway, and so ALS has effectively stolen $6.5 million from other charities.
MacAskill is referencing something he calls “funding cannibalism,” which is based on his own research from his non-profit, Giving What We Can. Unfortunately, he doesn’t link to this research, so I have no idea what he’s basing his conclusion on. Also, because he doesn’t cite his research, I have no idea if that $6.5 million the ALS Association took from other charities came from starving orphans or the National Man Boy Love Association.
MacAskill also claims that the ice bucket challenge is bad because it makes people feel very very good about doing something relatively minor, which will then lead to them doing fewer good things in the future. He points to a concept known as “moral licensing,” which is the idea that a person who is very confident in their own self-image as a good person will be more likely to engage in immoral acts.
For instance, MacAskill points to a study showing that subjects who bought an environmentally friendly item were more likely to later lie and steal compared to subjects buying a conventional item. Other studies have shown that people who are asked to think deeply about their own humanitarian qualities subsequently give less money to charity.
So could making someone feel good about giving to charity actually cause them to give less to charity in the long run? Maybe. Those studies are interesting, but they’re done in labs, usually on psychology students. In the real world, there are many other things that determine if we’re going to be good or not. Maybe a new donor to the ALS Association will go out tomorrow and kick a puppy, or maybe they’ll get more interested in ALS research and give again the next time the ALS Association emails them.
What I can say with certainty is that making people feel bad for participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge isn’t going to help any charities at all. It’s great to use popular memes like this as an opportunity to discuss evidence-based giving, but that discussion is going to do everyone a disservice if it uses shame as a hook.
Featured image comes from Flickr user Kyle May.