Demotivating incentives and motivation crowding out in charitable giving

Matthew Chao, Susan T. Fiske

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


Research has shown that extrinsic incentives can crowd out intrinsic motivation in many contexts. Despite this, many nonprofits offer conditional thank-you gifts, such as mugs or tote bags, in exchange for donations. In collaboration with a nonprofit, this study implements a direct mail field experiment and demonstrates that thank-you gifts reduced donation rates in a fundraising campaign. Attention-based multiattribute choice models suggest that this is because prospective donors shift attention to the salient gift offer, causing them to underweight less salient intrinsic motives. Attention to the gift may also cause individuals to adopt a more cost-benefit mindset, further de-emphasizing intrinsic motives. Consistent with these hypotheses, crowding out was driven by those who donated higher amounts in the previous year (i.e., those who likely had higher intrinsic motivation). In a complementary online experiment, thank-you gifts also reduced donation rates but only when the gift was visually salient. This corroborates the mediating role of attention in crowding out. Taken together, the laboratory and field results demonstrate that this fund-raising technique can be demotivating in some contexts and that this may occur through an attention-based mechanism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7301-7306
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number28
StatePublished - Jul 11 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Attention
  • Charitable giving
  • Motivation crowding out
  • Multiattribute choice
  • Saliency


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