Wednesday, November 17

The problem with Movember

At the risk of sounding like a jerk, I haven't donated to anyone's Movember campaign this year, and I'm not sure that I will. I'm blaming it on the paradox of choice.

Movember, for anyone out of the loop, is a charitable campaign where men grow a moustache in November to raise money to fight prostate cancer. It's a worthy cause, though I fear that Movember might fall victim to its own success.

There is a surprising amount of economic literature about why people give to charity. One potential motivation is the "power of the ask." When a friend is collecting money for a charity raffle or doing a bike ride to raise money for cancer, we feel compelled to donate to their cause. They're going to the trouble of raising the money, and if it's for a good cause, why not donate something?

Movember would fall into this category. But where Movember differs from, say, a charity fun run, is that everyone is doing it, all at the same time. In a typical summer (it seems like that's when all the charitable campaigns happen), I probably have about three or four friends asking for donations. The activities are usually at different times during the summer and the causes slightly different, so I try to donate to all of them.

But all Movember donations, as I understand it, go toward prostate cancer. So it doesn't matter which friend, professional hockey player, former work colleague or politician I donate to — all the money ends up at the same destination. That begs the question of who I should donate to. And deciding isn't easy — there is too much choice.

This is the so-called "paradox of choice," an problem with what social scientists call "choice architecture." There is a well-known experiment that illustrates this beautifully. Dsiplay 24 jars of jam for sale at a market, and three per cent of customers will buy a jar. Now, take away 16 jars and see what happens. Economic theory would tell us more is better — with fewer choices, people are less likely to find a jam they would enjoy, so sales should go down. But the opposite actually occurs — people get paralyzed as the number of choices goes up, so sales were 10 times better with only eight types of jam than they were with 24.

Observationally, it seems to me that more people are participating in Movember this year than in past, which makes me wonder if the campaign will be vulnerable to the paradox of choice. I don't have enough money to donate to the Movember campaigns of everyone I know (unless I donate an insultingly low amount to each person), so rather than sort out how I'm going to allocate my donation, it's simpler not to donate at all.

Contrast this with the Haiti earthquake relief effort. Lots of people were asking for money. Celebrities were encouraging donations on Twitter and friends egging us on over Facebook. There were telethons. You could donate over the Internet or with your cell phone — there were so many options. But there seemed to be one main destination for the funds — the Red Cross — and nobody was running individual campaigns showing how much they personally had raised for the Red Cross. Unlike Movember, there was no paradox of choice; people just donated straight to the Red Cross.

One final musing about Movember and charitable giving: I wonder how much an activity associated with a charitable campaign really matters. Do people donate more to someone who is running a marathon for charity than someone who is running five kilometres? Instinctively, I'm not sure the activity has that much of an effect on donations. But if it does, surely Movember's popularity would surely work against it. A few years ago, it would have been more "difficult" to grow a moustache in November because you'd look more out of place, but with so many people participating in this year's campaign, growing a moustache in November has become a lot more hip.