Too Far to Help: The Effect of Perceived Distance on the Expected Impact and Likelihood of Charitable Action

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Abstract

Fact: Holding force constant, a snowball thrown from 10 feet away will hurt more than one thrown from 50 feet away; it will have more impact. We show that people expect charitable donations—much like snowballs—to have more impact on nearby (vs. faraway) targets. Therefore, because making an impact is a powerful motivator of prosocial behavior, people are more willing to take action to help nearby (vs. faraway) causes—independent of social distance. Six studies, including lab and field experiments, and secondary data from fundraising campaigns support this prediction. Specifically, Study 1 shows that people expect charitable donations to have a greater impact on nearby (vs. faraway) recipients, and that these judgments stem from metaphorical thinking. In the context of alumni giving to their alma mater, the next two studies show that donations increase as real (Study 2) or perceived (Study 3) distances decrease. Study 4 extends these findings using a more conservative manipulation of distance perception (Study 4). Finally, Study 5 demonstrates the mediating role of expected impact on the effect of perceived distance on charitable action, whereas Study 6 shows that a motivational focus on making an impact moderates this effect.

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