Reminder of One’s Own Mortality Increases Tendency to Donate
Sun, April 18, 2021

Reminder of One’s Own Mortality Increases Tendency to Donate


People give their assets away for different reasons. Some do it to help others in need while others give to nonprofits because they trust that their money will make a difference. Other donors get tax breaks in exchange for their gifts to charity. Egoism is also a motivating factor because it makes the donor feel good and look good to others.

Mortality salience (MS)

A new study from the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business finds that people are 30% more likely to donate their assets when they are reminded of their mortality. The authors call it the mortality salience, which is the awareness that they are going to die.

In the past, some people have subscribed to the phrase “He who dies with the most toys wins.” It portrays that people should have fun while they can enjoy it. However, others interpret it as acquiring more material wealth to console oneself. But the UBC study shows that people can likewise express their desire to donate important possessions because it gives them transcendence or a kind of immorality.

Of living longer symbolically by giving away possessions

Co-author Katherine White, who is also a Professor at UBC Sauder, said that it may sound dramatic but the idea is that people can live longer symbolically. So, if possession or a product is somehow linked to the donor’s identity and they pass it to others, such a thing or item can have the ability to transcend the self. Their study, which appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research, was launched a few years ago before the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic that allowed people to consider their mortality, plan their estates, and update their wills.

Database company Statista counted 77 billionaires who donated to various causes to do with Covid-19 relief. The biggest donation as of April 2020 came from Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey. He donated $1 billion, a quarter of his wealth. Bill and Melinda Gates through their foundation donated $255 million followed by Indian business tycoon Azim Premji ($132 million coronavirus donation), Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist George Soros ($130 million), Jeff Skoll of Skoll Foundation, formerly eBay ($100 million), Jeff Bezos of Amazon ($100 million), Michael Dell ($100 million), Michael Bloomberg ($74.5 million), and Lynn and Stacy Schusterman of Samson Energy ($70 million).

Darren Dahl, Assistant Professor at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, also told that mortality salience is higher now as people become “more aware of how fragile life can be.” This is why many people are now thinking about symbolic immortality or where they can pass on their possessions.

During the experiment, the team asked the 512 participants to arrive at the lab with a book that they want to give away. They were then divided into groups. The first group was given a task that enabled them to contemplate their deaths while the second group’s task made them think what their typical day is like. After the task, some were offered the opportunity to write an inscription on their book and sign it before donating to make it more personal. Some were asked if they wanted to give away their book to a charity. The researchers were not present when the participants made their decisions to make sure that there was no pressure on them to donate.



When MS effect doesn’t work

White says that individuals who contemplated their death were 30% more likely to donate their books, especially when they had linked the product to themselves. This increased the chance of donation when they thought it is somehow connected to the donor’s identity. However, the MS effect goes away if the item is recycled or broken up, losing its potential for transcendence, added.

For instance, a person wants to donate a motorcycle or a car. If it has been sold off as parts or broken up into pieces, it is no longer the same as if the vehicle was left to endure. Dahl said that the specialness of the product and the fact that it represents the donor is broken up. The donor is no longer sticking around in that product as a whole identity. The physical integrity of the thing is lost by being recycled or broken down.

Furthermore, the MS effect did not work on individuals who already satisfied their want for transcendence via other channels.

Significance of the study

White states that their findings can be useful to charitable organizations searching for people who want to donate a part of their estates. Nonprofits can increase the number of donors by using something like a mural, a plaque, or something that permanently displays the list of donors. It could be anything that can connect the donor’s self to a more lasting thing or a tangible representation of themselves that will exist for a long time.



Firms can likewise use transcendence in marketing their products as being irreplaceable or precious family heirlooms or ones that possess high emotional value.

Indiana University’s Associate Professor Sara Konrath and the University of Pennsylvania's Professor of Social Policy Femida Handy, who is not involved in the recent study, conducted an online survey to rank the common reasons why people give to charity. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 indicating that it is a major motivation, altruism topped the list with a 4.21 score. This is followed by trust (3.71), social (3.15), egoism (2.2), and tax (2.06). On the other hand, one reason why donors refuse to give is financial constraints (2.45).

Our World in Data, a scientific online publication that focuses on large global problems, moreover shares countries with the highest estimates of altruism, where 0 is the average. This means that positive value reflects more altruism and negative values reflect less altruism. It includes the US (0.41), Brazil (0.46), Egypt (0.63), China (0.5), Philippines (0.38), Italy (0.35), and Georgia (0.63).

The new study on mortality salience can help nonprofits to boost their donor acquisition and fundraising results aside from the usual techniques of having compelling imagery, going mobile, and grabbing people’s attention to their cause.