A man and his aunt embrace after Hurricane Maria at the Rio Abajo community in Puerto Rico. A man and his aunt embrace after Hurricane Maria at the Rio Abajo community in Puerto Rico. A man and his aunt embrace after Hurricane Maria at the Rio Abajo community in Puerto Rico. A new study suggests people are motivated primarily by distance when deciding what causes to support. (Photo: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)

The No. 1 motivating factor in deciding which causes to support

Why do we give to certain causes and not others? A new study examines what influences our donation decisions.

You can all breathe easier now. You've just wrapped up an entire day devoted to charitable giving. On Giving Tuesday, you opened your hearts and your wallets, and you helped make the world better. Good for you!

But what part of the world, exactly? Why do people choose to donate to, say, the family down the street who just lost their house in a fire, rather than the hospital in Puerto Rico that's still without power three months after a hurricane? What's the No. 1 motivating factor in deciding which causes we support? Is it the nature of the issue? Who or what is involved? Women? Children? Animals? Property damage? Illness? War? Disaster? Politics? How emotionally or socially connected we are to it?

People in Puerto Rico wash their laundry in a stream. The island is still waiting for its water grids to be fixed. People in Puerto Rico wash their laundry in a stream. Some parts of the island are still without power. (Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Indeed, there are many factors to consider in your giving decisions, simply because there are so many causes in need of support. But in a new study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University, it was revealed that distance – the geographical kind, not social or emotional – is the biggest determining factor, regardless of the type of cause.

Why? Because, researchers Ayelet Fishbach and Maferima Touré-Tillery said, you believe it will have more impact that way.

"... People tend to think in metaphors, understanding and experiencing one thing (charitable impact), in terms of another (physical impact)," Touré-Tillery said. She likened it to a snowball fight, where if you throw a snowball from 10 feet away, it will hit your opponent with more force than if you had thrown it from 50 feet away.

In their study, the Israeli-born Fishbach, who's done extensive work on human behavior and consumer psychology, and her frequent collaborator Touré-Tillery, who hails from the Ivory Coast, examined two forms of giving: university alumni donations, and overseas donations (specifically to Haiti and the Ivory Coast).

In examining how college graduates donate to their alma maters, they found that donors were more likely to give if the language of the fundraising requests referred to distance, i.e. the school's close proximity to the donor. For the overseas requests, they found that when would-be donors heard that issues like globalization and ease of travel are mentioned in relation to a specific location, they were more likely to donate than if the requests mentioned how far away the country was to them.

"In particular, for places or people considered 'nearby,' potential donors have higher expectations of making an impact, and so, because expecting to have an impact is motivating, they are often more willing to help those perceived as close," Touré-Tillery said.

The researchers emphasized that it might be time for folks to rethink that approach. After all, there might be an ocean separating those in the continental United States from Puerto Rico, but help is still badly needed there, Touré-Tillery said.

"It is only a matter of perspective," she said. "Anyone can make a real impact in the world by getting involved."

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