I will only help if others tell me to do so! The simultaneous influence of injunctive and descriptive norms on donations

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  • 1 Åbo Akademi University, , Finland
  • | 2 Stockholm School of Economics, , Sweden
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To address the gaps in the understanding of how social norms can be used to increase charitable donations, we conducted two experiments with 347 participants. We demonstrated the following: (a) that the norms supporting or not supporting charitable donations influence donation intentions; (b) that injunctive norms (what the majority of people approve of) have stronger influences on donation intentions than descriptive ones (what the majority of people do); and (c) that when injunctive and descriptive norms do not align, they demotivate individuals to donate by reducing perceptions of collective efficacy. Our findings expand the literature on charitable donation, social norms and collective efficacy and offer insights for charitable organisations in terms of increasing donations by crafting convincing marketing content.

Abstract

To address the gaps in the understanding of how social norms can be used to increase charitable donations, we conducted two experiments with 347 participants. We demonstrated the following: (a) that the norms supporting or not supporting charitable donations influence donation intentions; (b) that injunctive norms (what the majority of people approve of) have stronger influences on donation intentions than descriptive ones (what the majority of people do); and (c) that when injunctive and descriptive norms do not align, they demotivate individuals to donate by reducing perceptions of collective efficacy. Our findings expand the literature on charitable donation, social norms and collective efficacy and offer insights for charitable organisations in terms of increasing donations by crafting convincing marketing content.

Introduction

Charitable organisations perform a vital societal role by advancing public benefits in a broad range of areas, such as scientific research, the environment, diversity, religion, culture, health, education, poverty and security (Internal Revenue Service, 2021). In 2020, between January and June alone, the public donated £5.4 billion to charities in the United Kingdom (UK) (Charities Aid Foundation, 2020). Since individual donations are a substantial income stream for these organisations, understanding what motivates people to donate is important. People’s intentions and behaviours can be encouraged by social norms, but to what extent social norms can be used to increase charitable donations has not received much attention in the literature (Agerström et al, 2016).

Social norms signal the kinds of attitudes and behaviours the majority of the population approve of (injunctive norms) and commonly perform (descriptive norms) (Cialdini et al, 1990). As empirical research has consistently demonstrated, social norms are influential in that they support (supportive norms) or discourage (unsupportive norms) particular intentions and behaviours (Cialdini et al, 1990). For instance, as Lindersson et al (2019) and Andersson et al (2022) have demonstrated, there is a significant change in the donation behaviour of individuals who are shown the percentage of people who previously donated to charitable organisations.

Injunctive and descriptive norms are often present concurrently in the real world, but they have been largely researched independently, which means that their influence on human attitudes and behaviour has only been explained partially (Raihani and McAuliffe, 2014). That sometimes these norms do not align with each other further complicates the situation: sometimes, what people approve of does not match their actions. The literature on the simultaneous effects of injunctive and descriptive norms is not only limited but also offers contradictory findings. Smith et al (2012), for instance, orthogonally manipulated the percentages of injunctive and descriptive norms by providing respondents with information on an ostensible study on energy conservation. Measuring respondents’ intention to engage in energy conservation, the authors concluded that unaligned social norms demotivate individuals to engage in pro-environmental behaviour. In contrast, Habib et al (2021), who also manipulated norm mismatch, found that unaligned social norms had a motivating effect on individuals’ intention to register as organ donors.

Scientific knowledge on whether injunctive or descriptive norms are more encouraging of donations remains inconclusive. To the best of our knowledge, a side-by-side comparison of the effectiveness of injunctive and descriptive norms in charities’ communications has not been performed before. How aligned versus unaligned injunctive and descriptive norms influence monetary donation intentions has not been studied either. Yet researching these topics has become especially relevant with the escalation of environmental and refugee crises and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which have increased the need for monetary donations. In these uncertain times, thousands of charities are competing for donations, and they require insights on how to make their fundraising efforts more successful.

Addressing the gaps in the literature, the study on which this article is based aimed to investigate which of the two norms – injunctive or descriptive – is more effective in soliciting donations and to uncover the effects of aligned versus unaligned injunctive and descriptive norms in a charity context. We aimed to study situations where people ostensibly support charitable causes and donation behaviours but then fail to act accordingly. We conducted two experiments. Experiment 1 investigated how injunctive and descriptive norms independently influence behavioural intentions in terms of charitable donations. Acknowledging the abovementioned complexity of real life, experiment 2 went one step further, studying how the two norms combine to influence charitable donation intentions.

Literature review

Charitable donations and socialisation

The non-profit sector consists of a wide variety of organisations that, according to Salamon et al (1996; 2000), share the following characteristics: (a) they were established formally; (b) they are not owned by the government; (c) they do not seek profit; (d) they govern themselves; and (e) they mostly rely on volunteerism. Charitable organisations represent one of the main entities within the non-profit sector. These organisations benefit others (Bekkers and Wiepking, 2011b) by serving the advancement of public benefits in various areas (Internal Revenue Service, 2021). To fund their operation, charities significantly depend on voluntary donations from individuals. Thus, understanding what motivates people to donate is vital.

In the review of studies on philanthropy, Bekkers and Wiepking (2011b) and Wiepking and Bekkers (2012) identified the predictors of charitable donations and discussed the possible mechanisms that serve as mediators and explain the relationships between the predictors and charitable donations. Socialisation, which is the process of learning the skills, behaviours and values required for functioning within society, is one of the identified predictors (Maccoby, 2014). It can influence charitable donations through four mechanisms: solicitation, reputation, values and psychological benefits (Bekkers and Wiepking, 2011b).

In the context of prosocial behaviour and charity, socialisation’s influence has been empirically supported. For instance, exploring the intergenerational transmission of philanthropic behaviour, Brown et al (2012) found that a significant positive relationship exists between parents’ and their children’s donation behaviours and that children’s behaviours are influenced by whether their parents talk to them about charitable donations. Ottoni-Wilhelm et al (2017) confirmed these findings by suggesting that talking to children about donating increases the likelihood of their donations by at least .13. How family characteristics, such as income and social distance, influence children’s altruistic behaviour in a dictator game1 was explored by Chen et al (2013), who found that children from low-income families donate more than children from high-income families.

Socialisation’s circle of influence extends beyond children and their parents to encompass peers and even strangers. Studying the influence of not only parents and peers but also the media and social media on the volunteer intentions of college students, Craig et al (2021) found parents, peers and social media to be the most significant influencers. However, prosocial attitudes were found to be influenced exclusively by peers. Similarly, studying peer influence, van Hoorn et al (2016) demonstrated that the probability of prosocial behaviour is higher when respondents are exposed to prosocial, instead of antisocial, feedback. Moreover, peer influence, Choukas-Bradley et al (2015) found, is relevant not only in public but also in private settings.

Charitable donations, evidently, are significantly influenced by socialisation. Zooming into socialisation, the next subsection discusses social norms, which represent an essential characteristic of any society.

Social norms and charitable donations

An important part of an individual’s socialisation process is the learning of social norms (Thompson, 2017). Social norms are group-based standards or rules for attitudes and behaviours, signalling what the majority of a specific society value, accept or do (Mesch et al, 2018). As Festinger (1954) argued, people, being prone to engage in a social comparison of their own beliefs to the social reality, are influenced by social norms (as cited in Stapel and Blanton, 2007). People also follow social norms since they are motivated to satisfy the expectations of others (Bicchieri, 2005). The sources of social norms vary and might include parents, peers, ingroup members and outgroup members. Which group’s social norms influence a person’s attitudes and behaviours significantly depends on the relevance of the group to that person (Nadler, 2017).

Researchers have distinguished between injunctive and descriptive norms, which motivate behaviour differently (Cialdini et al, 1990). Injunctive norms inform the social approval of an attitude or behaviour, suggesting what people should be doing and imposing ‘perceived social pressure to perform or not perform a behaviour’ (Ajzen, 1991: 188). Since people are dependent on others to meet their needs, they are, as Jones and Gerard (1967) suggested, concerned about others’ evaluations – this is called ‘effect dependence’ (as cited in Lapinski and Rimal, 2005). Connecting the norms to the mechanisms of charitable donation identified by Bekkers and Wiepking (2011a), injunctive norms would most likely operate through the mechanism of reputation, which is the benefactor’s social outcome of their donation behaviour; this can be a reward, such as approval or recognition, or punishment, such as a damaged reputation (Bekkers and Wiepking, 2011a).

Descriptive norms refer to the popularity of specific attitudes and behaviours (Cialdini et al, 1990), suggesting the type of behaviour that is effective or appropriate in a specific situation (Smith et al, 2012). Individuals, as per Jones and Gerard (1967), look to others to determine whether they are making the ‘right’ choices – this is called ‘information dependence’ (as cited in Lapinski and Rimal, 2005). Descriptive norms would most likely operate through the mechanism of efficacy, which is the perception that donating is the right course of action as it makes a difference to the supported cause (Bekkers and Wiepking, 2011a).

The literature on the influence of social norms in the charity context is scant, and the studies that do exist are inconclusive. On the one hand, Raihani and McAuliffe (2014) found that, in a dictator game, players were more generous when they were informed of what they had to do. Similarly, Reyniers and Bhalla (2013) demonstrated peer pressure by finding that the members of experimental pairs changed their donation decisions after learning how much others had donated. Moreover, Martin and Randal (2008) and Croson et al (2009) showed that signalling the large donations of past donors increased individuals’ donations. This influence stands true even for children (McAuliffe et al, 2017). Meanwhile, Agerström et al (2016) found that exposing students to descriptive norms significantly motivated their donations. Recently, Lindersson et al (2019) and Andersson et al (2022) demonstrated the positive influence of descriptive norms on donations in laboratory settings. However, comparing the influence of local versus global social identity norms, Lindersson et al (2019) did not find a significant difference. On the other hand, in Hysenbelli et al’s (2013) study, social norms were significantly more powerful when the source of these norms were ingroup versus outgroup members. Frey and Meier (2004) and Shang and Croson (2009) also concluded that telling people about others’ donations increased their contributions. However, in their studies, this information only influenced some of the respondents: in Frey and Meier’s (2004) study, the respondents who had never donated did not change their behaviour; contrarily, in Shang and Croson’s (2009) study, the normative information only influenced some of the respondents who had never donated before. Smith and McSweeney (2007) also found that descriptive norms did not predict charitable donation intentions, but injunctive norms did.

Adding another layer of complexity, in the next subsection, we discuss the literature on the influence of social norms when both injunctive and descriptive norms are present.

The interplay between injunctive and descriptive social norms

In real life, both types of social norms are often present, and often they do not align: people say one thing but do something else. Cialdini et al (1990) have studied the simultaneous influence of injunctive and descriptive norms and they conclude that injunctive norms are more powerful in directing intentions and behaviours than descriptive ones and therefore that when both are present, the former are the ones that influence intentions and behaviour. Their main argument is that injunctive norms can motivate behaviour across a range of contexts; in contrast, descriptive norms influence behaviour only in the immediate context in which other people’s behaviour occurs (Smith et al, 2012).

Regardless of these attempts, the effect of unaligned norms is yet to be properly understood (Smith et al, 2012). According to research on the interaction between injunctive and descriptive norms, unaligned social norms can either demotivate or motivate certain behaviours. Research on the demotivational effect of unaligned norms highlighted that such norms cause doubts about behavioural utility and/or signal to people that it is acceptable not to translate certain attitudes or intentions into behaviours (Olson, 2009). Smith et al (2012) manipulated injunctive and descriptive norms and measured pro-environmental behaviour intentions, finding that unaligned norms weakened pro-environmental behaviour intentions. However, when Smith and Louis (2008) manipulated students’ injunctive and descriptive norms about campus issues, the unaligned norms were found to exert a motivating influence in their first study and a demotivating influence in their second one. The scholars explained that the results were incongruent because attitude was considered more important for the students in the first study than it was for those in the second one.

According to other researchers, unaligned (sometimes even conflicting) norms motivate some types of behaviours. Such norms highlight to individuals the discrepancy between how they as a group are behaving and how they should be behaving (Smith et al, 2012; Cestac et al, 2014). This discrepancy can emphasise how critical individuals’ own actions are. For instance, across two experiments, McDonald et al (2014) found the following: (a) that conflicting norms increased pro-environmental behaviour or intentions to behave in such a way; (b) that such effects were mediated by the perceptions of behavioural effectiveness; and (c) that unaligned norms can serve as an excuse for not engaging in the behaviour. Rimal and Real (2003) also demonstrated the motivating influence of unaligned norms on students’ alcohol consumption. The students most likely to consume alcohol were the ones who perceived that, despite society’s disapproval of alcohol consumption, their peers still consumed it. Furthermore, Cestac et al (2014) found that speeding intentions were higher for the respondents who received conflicting information on speeding norms. Recently, Habib et al (2021) studied the influence of unaligned descriptive and injunctive norms on organ donations. Across three studies, the researchers demonstrated that such non-alignment led to an increase in the number of registrations for organ donations and that a feeling of responsibility served as a mediator.

In summary, the limited research that exists on the interaction between injunctive and descriptive norms either indicates the power of either set of norms or concludes that unaligned norms either motivate or demotivate behaviour. In addition to the literature being inconclusive, charitable behaviour – which differs from environmental behaviour, alcohol consumption and speeding– has not been studied.

The present study2

Hypotheses development

This study aimed to understand the following: (a) whether social norms influence donation intentions; (b) which social norm – injunctive or descriptive – is more powerful in its influence; and (c) how the two norms interact and influence donation intentions when both are present. To achieve its aims, two experiments were conducted.

First, according to limited prior research, norms should indeed influence charitable donation intention (see, for example, Croson et al, 2009; Reyniers and Bhalla, 2013; Raihani and McAuliffe, 2014; McAuliffe et al, 2017; Andersson et al, 2022). On the one hand, through the mechanism of reputation (Bekkers and Wiepking, 2011a), injunctive norms impose social pressure on people to behave in a particular manner, suggesting what they should be doing (Ajzen, 1991). This social pressure, according to Cialdini and Goldstein (2004), leads to conformity – the action undertaken by an individual to match one’s behaviour to the responses of others – which may be so powerful that individuals often conform to the behaviours of others even when those behaviours run contrary to their own convictions. On the other hand, by suggesting what others typically do, descriptive norms inform individuals about the type of behaviour that is effective in specific situations (Cialdini et al, 1990; Bekkers and Wiepking, 2011a; Smith et al, 2012). Individuals can thus compare their beliefs to social reality and behave as per what others approve of or do (Lapinski and Rimal, 2005; Stapel and Blanton, 2007). Thus:

Hypothesis 1: Exposure to supportive (versus unsupportive) norms more positively influences charitable donation intention.

Second, we turned an investigative eye to the separate effects of injunctive and descriptive norms. Individuals mostly refer to social norms in ambiguous situations, where the appropriate type of behaviour is unclear (Lapinski and Rimal, 2005). Donating money to charitable organisations ought to be an example of such a situation, as most people do not have a great deal of knowledge about how these organisations operate and handle public donations. Ambiguity related to charitable organisations and their operations becomes a bigger issue when scandals, such as the ones involving Save the Children UK and Oxfam, surface, tainting the entire sector and jeopardising public trust. In such conditions, individuals are likely to look for information from others to help them interpret things and arrive at judgements. Looking at descriptive norms, individuals can only understand what type of behaviour is typical, whereas injunctive norms directly inform them what behaviour is appropriate. Thus, we believed that, in the context of charity, injunctive norms would be more convincing than descriptive ones, so:

Hypothesis 2: Injunctive norms influence charitable donation intentions more than descriptive norms.

Unlike in experimental conditions, in the real world, injunctive and descriptive norms can be present simultaneously and may align or misalign with each other. As research has demonstrated, individuals are more likely to behave in a certain manner when both norms are supportive of their intention or behaviour (see, for example, Rimal and Real, 2003; Göckeritz et al, 2010). But the situation becomes complex when one norm is supportive and the other is unsupportive. Theoretically, and as described in the literature review section, unaligned norms may act as either motivators or demotivators. However, we believed that when it comes to donations, either of the norms being unsupportive will prompt individuals to deny the norms altogether. The reason is that inconsistency between injunctive and descriptive norms will undermine the behavioural utility and decrease the perceived effectiveness of the suggested behaviour (McDonald et al, 2014). As a result, unaligned norms will put individuals off from acting. This is especially probable in the charity context, where donating money equates to a certain sacrifice made by the donor. Unaligned social norms will ease the pressure and serve as an excuse to refuse making a donation. Thus:

Hypothesis 3: Aligned and unaligned norms influence charitable donation intentions. Respondents will have higher donation intentions when exposed to aligned supportive norms than unaligned norms.

Moreover, as noted earlier, the decision regarding whether to donate to charity is often ambiguous. In such situations, unaligned norms can reduce donation intentions through multiple mechanisms. One of these might be perceived collective efficacy. Collective or group efficacy is a belief in the ability of a group to successfully perform a behaviour (Gibson, 1999). When it comes to charitable donations, individual contributions are mostly so small that they alone cannot do much for the supported cause. Thus, when donating money, individuals aim to achieve the desired outcome by contributing collectively. Against this backdrop, unaligned social norms that communicate that group members either do not approve of or do not donate money may undermine the perceived collective efficacy – whether donors as a group are effective in making a difference for the supported cause. If individuals no longer believe that others also donate, their beliefs in collective efficacy will be shaken, thus demotivating them to donate. Thus:

Hypothesis 4: The relationship between aligned/unaligned norms and donation intentions is mediated by perceived collective efficacy.

Experiment 1

In experiment 1, we tested hypotheses 1 and 2 by separately manipulating injunctive and descriptive norms.

Method

Participants and design. Four groups of a total of 187 respondents participated in the study. The sample size was determined based on the general norm in the previous literature and by considering the financial resources at our disposal. The respondents were recruited through the crowdworking marketplace ProA (www.prolific.ac). Crowdworking platforms allow the speedy and cost-effective collection of high-quality data (Vargas et al, 2017), and the respondents from these platforms participate from home, avoiding lab- and researcher-related biases (Davis et al, 2010). The respondents received an hourly compensation of £7.50.

The average age of the sample was 35 (minimum = 18, maximum = 74) and 63% of the respondents were female. No significant differences between the experimental groups in terms of gender (p = .192) and age (p = .111) were found.

The respondents were randomly assigned to one of the four experimental conditions. After a short introduction, they were provided with stimuli manipulating the supportive or unsupportive injunctive or descriptive norms. After reading the stimuli, the respondents were asked to fill in a questionnaire.

Manipulations. For manipulation, two Facebook advertisements were created, each depicting the picture of a ‘cancer patient’, which was taken by a professional photographer for this study. To enhance the believability and credibility of the advertisement, the design and texts from real advertisements were borrowed. To avoid any predetermined attitudes, the norms were manipulated using a fictional organisation – Cancer Research Fund – with a fictional logo.

In groups 1 and 2, we manipulated the injunctive norms by presenting either supportive (group 1) or unsupportive (group 2) sets of comments, with each set containing five comments. Based on the literature and extensive pre-testing, the number of comments was deemed appropriate to establish the desired pattern. Three comments of each set were supportive or unsupportive of donating money to charity in groups 1 and 2, respectively. Besides, in each set, we used two neutral comments. This increased the believability of the stimuli, preventing the respondents from guessing the essence of the study. The comments were copied from or inspired by real comments on the Facebook feed of Cancer Research UK (for example, supportive comment: ‘Stand up for survivors of cancer. These funds are going to a good cause’; unsupportive comment: ‘Time to wake up. These funds are going nowhere other than big salaries and no cures’). The comments in the two sets matched in terms of their strength in conveying their intentions of supporting or not supporting donations. To avoid changes in dependent variables due to the ingroup versus outgroup belonging of the victim and authors of the comments (users), we included typical British names both for the victim (Olivia Smith) and the users (for example, Emily Williams). The user photos were blurred, and the Facebook posts were pre-tested in a focus group of eight university teachers who are active Facebook users. They confirmed the believability of the stimuli.

In groups 3 and 4, the descriptive norms were manipulated. We used the same Facebook post as in groups 1 and 2. However, rather than letting the respondents read the comments, they were informed that approximately 84% versus 22% of British people who saw the Facebook post donated to the Cancer Research Fund. To choose the percentages that would seem believable while still having a significant effect on the participants, we conducted a pre-test (see the Appendix). Table 1 summarises the experimental conditions.

Table 1:

Experimental manipulations in experiment 1

GroupConditionManipulation
Group 1Supportive injunctive normFacebook post with supportive comments.
Group 2Unsupportive injunctive normFacebook post with unsupportive comments.
Group 3Supportive descriptive normFacebook post with information that approximately 84% of British people who saw the Facebook post donated to the Cancer Research Fund.
Group 4Unsupportive descriptive normFacebook post with information that approximately 22% of British people who saw the Facebook post donated to the Cancer Research Fund.

Measures. To measure donation intentions, the well-established measures of two items were adopted from the literature. The wording of the questions was adjusted to fit the present experiment (for example, ‘After reading the post and comments, how likely are you to consider donating money to this charity?’) (Hornikx et al, 2010). All the measures used a seven-point response format (for example, 1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree). To form an overall index, the responses to the individual items of the same variable were averaged. Table 2 provides the variables and items of experiment 1.

Table 2:

Variables and items in experiment 1

LevelVariables and itemsα if item deletedMeansStandard deviations
Group 1Group 2Group 3Group 4Mean for allGroup 1Group 2Group 3Group 4SD for all
DVDonation intentions (Hornikx et al, 2010) (Cronbach’s α = .9; CR = .9; AVE = .82)
After reading the post and comments, how likely are you to consider donating money to this charity?4.213.64.273.863.981.631.631.451.671.61
After reading the post and comments, how likely are you to actually donate money to this charity?3.722.933.623.143.351.631.371.171.51.48
ControlCredibility of charitable organisation (Colliander and Marder, 2018) (Cronbach’s α = .94; CR = .94; AVE = .85)
I think the charitable organisation in the advertisement is credible.925.34.765.385.55.241.331.511.481.091.38
I think the charitable organisation in the advertisement is believable.885.434.895.535.625.371.251.401.471.061.32
I think the charitable organisation in the advertisement is honest.955.214.85.495.545.271.41.331.471.221.38
General attitudes towards charitable donations (Osgood et al, 1957) (Cronbach’s α = .9; CR = .93; AVE = .78)
I think giving money to charity is irresponsible/responsible.875.835.716.25.925.911.281.11.021.181.15
I think giving money to charity is bad/good.886.136.186.386.266.241.24.94.99.971.04
I think giving money to charity is stupid/smart.95.535.335.985.465.571.211.241.141.181.21
I think giving money to charity is unworthy/worthy.896.025.786.315.986.021.091.151.021.11.1

Note: AVE = average variance extracted, CR = composite reliability, DV = dependent variable, SD = standard deviation.

We conducted manipulation checks by asking the respondents whether, based on the comments or percentages, they would say that the majority of people in Britain approve of donating/actually donate money to the Cancer Research Fund.

Analysis and results

Manipulation checks. The injunctive norm perception analysis revealed a significant effect of the injunctive norm condition (MSupportive = 5.51; MUnsupportive = 2.9; p = .000). The descriptive norm perception analysis also revealed a significant effect of the manipulation (MSupportive = 5; MUnsupportive = 4; p = .003).

Hypotheses testing. Hypothesis 1 states that exposure to supportive (versus unsupportive) norms more positively influences donation intentions towards a charitable cause. One step further, according to hypothesis 2, we expected that injunctive norms influence donation intentions towards a charitable cause more than descriptive ones. To test hypotheses 1 and 2, we conducted two-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) tests, where the credibility of charitable organisations and the general attitudes towards them were used as covariates. In addition, we conducted the independent samples T-test.

The interaction effect between the two independent variables – supportive versus unsupportive norms and injunctive versus descriptive norms – was not statistically significant [F (1, 181) = .025, p = .874, partial η2 < .000]. Thus, the main effects were determined. The main effect of the norms being supportive or unsupportive of donation intentions was statistically significant [F (1, 181) = 4.954, p = .027, partial η2 = .027]. The supportive social norms (M = 3.956, SE = .150) were associated with a mean donation intentions score of .573 (95% CI, .157 to .989) points higher than that of unsupportive social norms (M = 3.383, SE = .148).

On the other hand, the main effect of the norm type was not statistically significant [F (1, 181) = 1.114, p = .293, partial η2 = .006]. The descriptive social norm (M = 3.722, SE = .148) was associated with a mean donation intention score of just .105 (95% CI, 3.430 to 4.014) points higher than that of injunctive norms (M = 3.617, SE = .150).

To gain further insights, we split the data based on whether the respondents were exposed to the manipulations of injunctive or descriptive norms. Using the independent samples T-test, we analysed group differences in terms of donation intentions based on whether the respondents were manipulated with supportive versus unsupportive norms. We found that, in injunctive norm conditions, whether the norms were supportive or unsupportive did make a significant difference in terms of donation intentions [M = .701, 95% CI, -1.318 to -.085, t (89.579) = -2.259, p = .026]. Specifically, the group subjected to supportive injunctive norms had a significantly higher donation intention (M = 3.968, SD = 1.572) than the one subjected to negative injunctive norms (M = 3.267, SD = 1.405). On the other hand, in descriptive norm conditions, the difference between the groups was not statistically significant [M = .444, 95% CI, -1.01 to -.117, t (82.414) = -1.572, p = .12]. Still, the group exposed to supportive descriptive norms had somewhat higher donation intentions (M = 3.9444) than the one exposed to unsupportive ones (M = 3.5). Based on this, hypotheses 1 and 2 were empirically supported. Figure 1 illustrates the results.

In the graph, the vertical axis is scaled from 0.00 to 5.00 in gaps of 1.00 unit. Data shown by the graph are as follows. Supportive: injunctive, 4.00; descriptive, 3.90. Unsupportive: injunctive, 3.20; descriptive, 3.50. The errors bars represent 95% CI. All values are approximated.
Figure 1:

Results of experiment 1

Citation: Voluntary Sector Review 2022; 10.1332/204080521X16442337687557

Discussion

The purpose of experiment 1 was to check: (a) whether exposure to supportive versus unsupportive norms influences donation intentions; and (b) which of the two social norms is more powerful in directing behaviour.

As the results show, the respondents exposed to supportive norms exhibited significantly higher donation intentions than those exposed to unsupportive ones. This is consistent with the findings of previous studies, which suggested that individuals compare their beliefs to the social reality and align their actions with those of other societal members (see, for example, Ajzen, 1991; Lindersson et al, 2019; Ottoni-Wilhelm et al, 2017; Andersson et al, 2022; Craig et al, 2021).

Moreover, when averaging the donation intentions of the groups subjected to supportive and unsupportive norms, injunctive and descriptive social norms were found to exert a similar influence. However, when analysed separately, manipulating injunctive norms did make a significant difference in donation intentions, while manipulating descriptive ones did not (even though the effect was in the same direction). However, based on this particular study alone, we cannot conclude whether injunctive norms influence donation intentions through the mechanism of reputation. We can only conclude that the manipulation of injunctive norms does impose social pressure, which directs behaviour. On the other hand, descriptive norms, which suggest effective behaviour (Cialdini et al, 1990; Smith et al, 2012), did not have a significant effect. These findings are consistent with the findings of some previous studies. For example, applying the revised theory of planned behaviour, Smith and McSweeney (2007) found that injunctive norms, and not descriptive norms, influence donation intentions. Moreover, Raihani and McAuliffe (2014) found that their respondents who learnt descriptive norms did not contribute money more generously compared with the control group..

On the other hand, our findings contradict some other studies which suggested the influence of descriptive norms on donations. Shang and Croson (2009) found that information given on social norms significantly influenced donations. Agerström et al (2016) also showed that descriptive norms motivated students to donate. Similarly, Reyniers and Bhalla (2013) found that informing respondents about the descriptive norms of their peers influenced giving. We believe that the inconsistency between the results of these studies and ours was caused by sample and manipulation differences. Shang and Croson (2009), for example, found that descriptive norms only influenced new donors; Agerström et al (2016) only studied students. Possibly, the charity context was novel for these two groups of respondents, and this motivated their conformity to descriptive norms. On the other hand, our sample comprised individuals from various age groups who, we believe, had a wide variety of donation experiences. This could have made them resistant to descriptive norms. Another possible reason why descriptive norms did not emerge as significant influencers in our study might be the stimulus. Descriptive norms were manipulated by percentages (84% versus 22%). Although pre-tested, in a larger-scale study the respondents could have perceived both of these percentages as supportive. Moreover, the supportive formulation of descriptive norms could have made them less powerful, as people are more sensitive to descriptive information on what people do not do rather than what they do (Bergquist and Nilsson, 2019). Finally, unlike in our study, Reyniers and Bhalla (2013) found the influence of peers’ descriptive norms. In contrast, in our study, we manipulated the norms of strangers.

Experiment 2

In experiment 2, hypotheses 3 and 4 were tested by simultaneously manipulating the injunctive and descriptive norms.

Method

Participants and design. Two groups of a total of 160 respondents were recruited on ProA. The sample size was determined by considering the general norm described in the literature and the financial resources available for the study. All the respondents received an hourly compensation of £7.50.

The average age of the respondents was 36 (minimum = 18, maximum = 77), with 72% of them being female. No significant differences between the experimental groups in terms of gender (p = .132) and age (p = .075) were found.

The respondents were randomly assigned to one of the experimental conditions. After a short introduction was given, the manipulation was conducted, and then the respondents were asked to fill out the study questionnaire.

Manipulation. Addressing the possible limitation of experiment 1, we sought to manipulate the injunctive and descriptive norms at the same level of specificity. Thus, both sets of norms were manipulated using percentages.

In the aligned group norms condition (group 1), the respondents read that 85% of British people say they approve of donating to animal welfare organisations (injunctive norms) and, in reality, 84% actually donate (descriptive norms). In the unaligned group norms condition (group 2), the respondents read that 85% of British people say they approve of donating to animal welfare but, in reality, only 22% actually donate. These percentages were chosen based on pre-testing to ensure they were believable and they had a significant effect. In addition to the text, the participants saw two pie charts illustrating the results, which increased the manipulative power of our stimuli (see the Appendix). Table 3 summarises the experimental conditions.

Table 3:

Experimental manipulations in experiment 2

GroupConditionManipulation
Group 1AlignedInformation on an ostensible study suggesting that 85% of British people say they approve of donating to animal welfare organisations and, in reality, 85% actually donate.
Group 2UnalignedInformation on an ostensible study suggesting that 85% of British people say they approve of donating to animal welfare organisations and, in reality, only 22% actually donate.

Measures. In experiment 2, the donation intentions were measured using five items adapted from the literature (for example, ‘How likely do you think it is that you will donate money to animal welfare organisations in the next four weeks?’) (Ajzen, 2002). Similarly, four items of collective efficacy were adopted from previous studies (for example, ‘Together those who donate can change the situation for animals’) (Thomas et al, 2016). All the measures used a seven-point response format (for example, 1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree). To form an overall index, the answers to multiple items of the same variable were averaged. To avoid response bias, some of the items were negatively worded and reverse-scored before analysis. Table 4 provides the variables and items of experiment 2.

Table 4:

Variables and items in experiment 2

LevelVariables and itemsα if item deletedMeansStandard deviations
Group 1Group 2Mean for allGroup 1Group 2SD for all
DVDonation intentions (Ajzen, 2002) (Cronbach’s α = .9; CR = .93; AVE = .72)
How likely do you think it is that you will donate money to animal welfare organisations in the next 4 weeks?.93.152.272.712.111.481.87
I will donate money to an animal welfare organisation in the next 4 weeks.882.92.372.632.041.561.83
I would like to donate money to an animal welfare organisation in the next 4 weeks.674.223.573.892.121.942.05
I do not intend to donate money to an animal welfare organisation in the next 4 weeks (R).793.543.113.332.32.072.23
I intend to donate money to an animal welfare organisation in the next 4 weeks.8732.572.782.041.671.87
DVCollective efficacy (Thomas et al, 2016) (Cronbach’s α = .8; CR = .86; AVE = .65)
Together those who donate can change the situation for animals.745.865.35.571.141.31.23
Together those who donate can stop animal neglect, cruelty and abuse.824.774.724.741.681.421.55
Together those who donate can successfully stand up for the animal rights.775.575.115.341.111.231.19
Together those who donate can really influence animal neglect, cruelty and abuse.795.154.644.891.441.41.44
CtrlPerceived behavioural control (Ajzen, 2002; Smith and McSweeney, 2007) (Cronbach’s α = .84; CR = .85; AVE = .59)
If I want to, I could easily donate money to an animal welfare organisation in the next 4 weeks.764.8144.42.081.862
It is mostly up to me whether I donate money to animal welfare organisations in the next 4 weeks.856.095.956.021.41.351.38
I am confident that I will be able to donate money to an animal welfare organisation in the next 4 weeks.83.843.283.562.161.812
Donating money to an animal welfare organisation in the next 4 weeks is easy for me to do.754.433.84.112.11.862
Overall, how much control do you have over whether you donate money to an animal welfare organisation in the next 4 weeks?.865.995.535.761.571.811.71
General credibility of charitable organisations (Colliander and Marder, 2018) (Cronbach’s α = .94; CR = .93; AVE = .81)
In general, animal welfare organisations in the UK are credible.935.495.585.541.19.941.06
In general, animal welfare organisations in the UK are believable.885.545.525.531.231.051.14
In general, animal welfare organisations in the UK are honest.925.465.425.441.241.131.18

Note: AVE = average variance extracted, CR = composite reliability, DV = dependent variable, (R) = negatively worded and reverse-scored, SD = standard deviation.

The manipulation checks were conducted by asking respondents whether they would say that the majority of British people approve of donating/actually donate money to animal welfare organisations.

Analysis and results

Manipulation checks. Analysis of the perceptions of the group injunctive norms did not reveal a significant effect of injunctive norm manipulation (MGroup 1 = 6.3; MGroup 2 = 6.11; p = .290). On the other hand, analysis of the perceptions of the group descriptive norms did reveal a significant effect of descriptive norm manipulation (MGroup 1 = 5.81; MGroup 2 = 2.01; p = .037).

Hypotheses testing. Hypothesis 3 states that whether injunctive and descriptive norms align or not influences respondents’ donation intentions. We expected the respondents to form more favourable donation intentions when exposed to aligned supportive norms than to unaligned norms. To test the hypothesis, we conducted an independent samples T-Test and compared the means of donation intentions of our two experimental groups, finding that the respondents subjected to aligned injunctive and descriptive norms had higher donation intentions (M = 3.362, SD = 1.94) than the ones subjected to the unaligned norm condition (M = 2.778, SD = 1.47) – a statistically significant difference [M = .584, 95% CI, .05 to 1.12, t (145.634) = 2.14, p = .034]. Thus, hypothesis 3 was empirically supported.

Hypothesis 4, according to which aligned/unaligned norms influence donation intentions through changing collective efficacy, was tested using the mediation analysis using the SPSS PROCESS macro by Andrew F. Hayes (model 4).3 Perceived behavioural control and the credibility of charitable organisations were kept constant.

The total effect revealed a medium overall fit [F (3, 156) = 10.731, p < .001, R2 = .171]. The total effect of the perceived norms on donation intentions (that is, the c path) was moderate, positive and insignificant [b = .4584, t (156) = 1.783, p = .0766].

The effect of the perceived norms on collective efficacy (that is, the ai path) was moderate, positive and significant [b = .423, t (156) = 2.733, p = .007].

The indirect effect revealed a medium overall fit of the model [F (4, 155) = 12.4, p < .001, R2 = .243]. The effect of collective efficacy on donation intentions (that is, the bi path) was moderate, positive and significant [b = .4876, t (154) = 3.821, p = .002].

The overall indirect effect of the perceived norms on donation intentions mediated by collective efficacy was statistically significant [IE = .2062, 95% CI, .0571 to .3827]. CI did not include 0, and we concluded that mediation exists. Thus, hypothesis 4 was empirically supported.

When controlling for the mediator, the direct effect of the perceived norms on donation intentions (that is, the c path) showed a moderate, positive and insignificant relationship [b = .2522, t (156) = .9989, p = .3194], indicating full mediation. Thus, hypothesis 4 was again supported. Results of parallel mediation and moderation analysis of experiment 2 are provided in Figure 2.

In the illustration, three boxes are triangularly aligned. The box on the left reads perceived norms: aligned versus unaligned and point to the boxes on the top and the right. The box on the top reads collective efficacy and points to the box on the right. The box on the right reads donation intentions. The left arm of the triangle is labeled b = 0.423 asterisk asterisk. The right arm of the triangle is labeled b = 0.4876 asterisk asterisk asterisk. The base of the triangle is labeled as follows. Total effect: b = 0.4584; p = 0.0766. Direct effect: b = 0.2522; p = 0.3194.
Figure 2:

Results of parallel mediation and moderation analyses in experiment 2

Citation: Voluntary Sector Review 2022; 10.1332/204080521X16442337687557

Discussion

By conducting experiment 2, we went one step further and tested how aligned and unaligned norms influence donation intentions.

First, we found that whether norms align or not does influence overall donation intentions. This finding is consistent with that of Smith and Louis (2008) and Smith et al (2012), who concluded that, in some cases, the beneficial effect of supportive injunctive norms can be undermined by unsupportive descriptive norms; thus, unaligned norms demotivate individuals from acting. On the other hand, our findings contradict the findings of Rimal and Real (2003), Cestac et al (2014) and McDonald et al (2014), who demonstrated the motivating effect of unaligned norms on alcohol consumption, speeding intentions and pro-environmental behaviour, respectively. One possible explanation is the difference in the domains: first, by consuming alcohol or speeding when driving, people might be expressing their rebellion against social standards – this could have reflected the motivational influence of unaligned social norms; second, alcohol consumption and speeding are more tempting than donating. Therefore, it is easier to use unaligned social norms as an excuse and refuse to donate to charity. Thus, we can conclude that the mechanisms of reputation and efficacy suggested by Bekkers and Wiepking (2011a) as mediators between socialisation and giving do not work the same way in the domains of alcohol consumption and speeding. In these domains, some other variables would mediate the relationship, which, obviously, would produce different results. Moreover, McDonald et al (2014) found that unaligned social norms only motivated behaviour among the respondents who were highly involved with environmental conservation. Possibly, our respondents were demotivated by the unaligned norms because they were not personally involved with the issue at hand.

Interestingly, the manipulation of descriptive norms using the percentages did not significantly influence the donation intentions in experiment 1, but it did in experiment 2. This was, we believe, conditioned by the way these percentages were presented: in experiment 1, we provided the respondents with the information on descriptive norms without any reference point; in experiment 2, these same percentages of descriptive norms were provided side by side with the percentages of the injunctive norms. The information on injunctive norms probably gave the reference point, which most likely influenced the way the respondents perceived the percentages of descriptive norms (experiment 1: 84% and 22% being both perceived as supportive; experiment 2: 84% and 22%, when compared to the 85% of injunctive norms, being perceived as supportive and unsupportive, respectively).

We also hypothesised that norm alignment influences donation intentions by changing the perceived donation effectiveness and observed the mediation of collective efficacy. In other words, unaligned norms undermine the effectiveness of a group as a whole to reach its goal. These doubts in collective efficacy led participants to exhibit significantly lower donation intentions. This finding is congruent with the claim of Thomas et al (2016), who stated that, for individuals to engage in collective action, they should believe that the group will be successful in achieving a specific outcome.

Conclusions

Theoretical implications

The study contributes to the limited and inconclusive literature on charitable donations and social norms. Specifically, research on whether injunctive or descriptive norms are more powerful motivators of donation intentions is limited. Moreover, the studies that do exist provide conflicting findings. This study sheds some light on whether injunctive or descriptive norms are more powerful in directing donation intentions. When studying social norms, most studies have focused on their influence independently, which may not offer the full picture. The literature addressing the simultaneous influence of injunctive and descriptive norms is even scarcer. The studies that do exist were conducted in the context of pro-environmental behaviour or alcohol consumption, which is different from charitable behaviour as their antecedents and consequences differ. Thus, this study also adds to the literature on the simultaneous effect of injunctive and descriptive norms in the context of charity. Moreover, to the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to address the process through which the combination of the two norms influences donation intentions and identify collective efficacy as the mediator. By investigating collective efficacy in the charity context, this study also contributes to the literature on collective action and collective efficacy, which, since none of the previous studies addressed the concept in the charity context, is significant.

Practical implications

In addition to theoretical contributions, our results have practical relevance. Charitable organisations can use our findings to effectively employ the power of social norms to create successful marketing content for recruiting private donors or manage their online and offline reputations. Specifically, we encourage these organisations to emphasise injunctive norms in their communications. This can be done by providing the percentages of how many people support the cause or by providing an opportunity for people to write and share supportive comments in the marketing content. We found that unaligned norms can significantly demotivate individuals to act. Thus, charities should not highlight what people are doing and what they should be doing in the hope of increasing empathy or perceptions of the importance of individual action. Lastly, unaligned social norms cause doubts in collective efficacy and lead to lower levels of donation intention. Understanding the importance of collective efficacy, charitable organisations should communicate the power and positive outcomes of collective efforts. This can be done by explaining how individual donations matter and how even small contributions add up and lead to significant positive changes for the beneficiaries. In addition, we also recommend that charities share pictures of their work that show the group work of donors and employees. Such content can also increase collective efficacy and mitigate the negative impact of unaligned social norms.

Limitations and future research suggestions

The limitations of this study can be addressed by future researchers. The main limitation is that the study focused on behavioural intentions rather than actual behaviour. Even though donation intentions often match behaviours (Smith and McSweeney, 2007), sometimes intentions are revised or abandoned, creating the intention–behaviour gap (Davies et al, 2002). Future researchers, thus, should study actual behaviour rather than intentions. Moreover, in experiment 1, we manipulated injunctive norms with comments and descriptive norms with percentages, finding that injunctive norms were more powerful in directing behavioural intentions. As already mentioned, this finding could have been caused by the difference in the manipulative power of comments and percentages. Another possible explanation for descriptive norms not emerging as important influencers of donation intentions could be that the percentages of 85 and 22 were both considered supportive by the respondents. Furthermore, in experiment 2, we investigated how unsupportive descriptive norms undermine the power of supportive injunctive norms. It would be interesting to explore whether the same effect holds in the condition when descriptive norms are supportive and injunctive norms are unsupportive or less supportive. Besides, in our experiments, we included only one source of norms. Information on social norms can have a different effect or even backfire depending on the reference network (Bicchieri and Dimant, 2019). We thus encourage future researchers to explore whether the same effects hold throughout various sources (for example, peers or family members). Moreover, we checked the mediation effect of only one variable – collective efficacy – which represents just one possible mediator. Therefore, future studies should uncover more variables capable of mediating the relationship between social norms and donation intentions. Lastly, the results obtained by experiments might be bound to specific experimental settings, such as manipulation techniques. Thus, to check the validity of the findings, we encourage the replication of the study using different experimental settings or in different cultural contexts or countries.

Notes

1

Dictator game is an experimental instrument where, subjected to a specific condition, participants decide whether to give money to another participant (Bardsley, 2008).

2

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the first author upon reasonable request.

3

This is an observed variable ordinary least squares and logistic regression path analysis modelling tool (Hayes, 2017).

Acknowledgement

This work was supported by the Foundation for Economic Education under grant 14–7837.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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Appendix

Stimuli of Experiment 1

Stimuli of Experiment 2

  • Agerström, J., Carlsson, R., Nicklasson, L. and Guntell, L. (2016) Using descriptive social norms to increase charitable giving: the power of local norms, Journal of Economic Psychology, 52: 14753.

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  • 1 Åbo Akademi University, , Finland
  • | 2 Stockholm School of Economics, , Sweden

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