Cute Critters Score Cash From Donors, Ugly Animals Not So Much

New research finds that a ‘charity beauty premium’ helps influence donations to wildlife causes.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and President Barack Obama meet Jimbelung the koala in 2014. (Photo: Andrew Taylor/G20 Australia via Getty Images)
Dec 9, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Which endangered animals attract donors’ hard-earned dollars? New research found that the most attractive species tend to attract donations more than those in the most need.

The researchers called this a “charity beauty premium”—an indication that donors favor “beautiful” species, such as koalas and polar bears, over less attractive species, such as snakes and lizards.

Lead author Cynthia Cryder, associate professor of marketing at Olin Business School in St. Louis, said the results were surprising “but not shocking. Certainly people are drawn to aesthetic things, and it seems to matter for the charity domain also.”

The researchers’ conclusions resulted from a series of eight studies involving thousands of people who were polled either in person or online. Participants were shown a series of photos of potential charity recipients—animals were the focus of one of the eight studies—and asked to respond. When they had to make a quick, intuitive decision, they invariably went with the more beautiful recipients, even if they knew others were more in need of financial support.

Things changed if participants were asked to take more time to think about their decisions. “If we asked people to think really hard about their choice, then they were no longer picking the beautiful recipient,” Cryder said. Instead, they picked the option that displayed greater need.

It didn’t take long. Intuitive decisions happened in as little as 10 seconds. More thoughtful decisions took just 10 or 20 seconds longer—less time than your average Sarah McLachlan tearjerker commercial for the ASPCA.

“Twenty seconds was sufficient for the intuitive effect to go away,” Cryder said, although she noted that the study participants were being asked to “think very carefully during those 20 seconds,” which may be different from the way people normally interact with commercials or other messages.

RELATED: 10 Selfies by Some of the World’s Most Endangered Animals

Advertising and other calls for cause-related donations probably take much of this into account already, Cryder said. “It’s not a brand-new idea, but in terms of testing its effectiveness, it’s fairly new.” She added that nonprofits may want to do some further examination of the results. “I think every charity needs to test it themselves, with their own sample and their own context,” she said. “If their donors are particularly deliberative, say with end-of-the-year donations in December, then they might not see this effect.”

Donors may also want to think about how this affects their own behavior. Another finding from the research was that donating to the neediest recipients didn’t necessarily produce as much happiness. “We see that people are happier where there’s a beautiful recipient in their choice set,” Cryder said. The level of happiness produced by the donation then affected further behavior. “We can encourage people to be more thoughtful about their choices, and they’ll pick the needier recipient, but then we asked them if they were interested in donating again in the future and they said no.” They found the act of giving to the needier recipient to be less satisfying.

That, Cryder said, is one of the other messages from the research: Donors should pick charities that appeal to them and that provide them with “very real and genuine happiness from giving, because that’s likely to sustain their giving in the long run.”