March 6, 2013

Life or Death Decisions: Framing the Call for Help

J. Keith Murnighan

Background: Chronic blood shortages in the U.S. would be alleviated by small increases, in percentage terms, of people donating blood. However, because helping is costly, people do not always provide enough help. The current research investigated whether subtle changes in charitable messages could have profound effects on how people respond to the call for help. We predicted that messages seeking goals to avoid losses would lead to more helping behavior than goals that promote gains.

Method: Two studies investigated the effects of loss framing on helping intentions and behaviors. With the help and collaboration of the Red Cross, Study 1, a field experiment, directly assessed the effectiveness of a call for blood donations that was presented as either death-preventing (losses) or life-saving (gains), and as being of either more or less urgent need. With the help and collaboration of a local charity, Study 2, a lab experiment, assessed the effects of the gain-versus-loss framing of a donation-soliciting flyer on individuals’ expectations of others’ monetary donations as well their own volunteering behavior. Study 2 also assessed the effects of three emotional motivators - feelings of empathy, positive affect, and relational closeness.

Result: Study 1 indicated that, on a college campus, describing blood donations as a way to “prevent a death” rather than “save a life” boosted the donation rate. Study 2 showed that framing a charity’s appeals as helping people to avoid a loss led to larger expected donations, increased intentions to volunteer, and more helping behavior, independent of other emotional motivators.

Conclusion: This research identifies and demonstrates a reliable and effective method for increasing important helping behaviors by providing charities with concrete ideas that can effectively increase helping behavior generally and potentially death-preventing behavior in particular.