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A New Way to Bolster Acts of Kindness

New research highlights a technique to promote acts of service.

Key points

  • New research found evidence that people are more likely to donate money to charity when told their donation might be canceled.
  • The so-called "maybe favor" may promote increased donations because people overestimate the likelihood that they'll keep the money.
  • At the same time, they get to reap the emotional benefits of being prosocial.
  • This technique could be a meaningful way to encourage acts of goodwill, provided it's not mishandled.
Branmir Balogović/Pexels
Source: Branmir Balogović/Pexels

If someone asked you for some help, would you provide it? In all probability, your answer would depend on a variety of factors, including who asked for help (e.g., you’re more inclined to help loved ones than people you don’t know) and your view of the circumstances (e.g., if you think the situation warrants assistance, you’re more likely to give it).

In a new research paper that came out this month (June 2021), a team of scientists at the University of Cologne examined an additional way to promote kind acts toward strangers, in this case, giving to charity. They call it the “maybe favor.”

Over a series of experiments, they first asked people to answer a few survey questions. Then they asked the participants in the study for a charitable donation in one of two ways (the type of request people received was determined at random). One way (the control condition) involved straightforwardly asking people to donate all or a part of their payment for participating in the study to charity. The other way (the experimental condition) involved asking for a donation to charity and then including this element into the request: “If you agree, there is only a chance that you will make the donation eventually. This is because from all the participants who agree, we will randomly select 5 percent for which we will revoke the donation.”

The researchers then compared the impact of their plain request for a donation with what happened when they included the "maybe favor" (i.e., telling people they might not wind up giving a donation because it could be reversed). They found that people were more apt to agree to make a charitable donation when they knew that the donation might not actually go through.

Why the "Maybe Favor" Changed Behavior

But why would people be more likely to give to charity when they know they may not have to make good on their word, especially when there are such small odds (only 5 percent) that they’d get their donation back?

There appear to be a couple of factors at work here, as the researchers noted. One is that we humans aren’t that great at making decisions based on the likelihood that something will or will not happen; we’re inclined to amplify smaller odds and reduce larger odds.

What this means is that even though a person has just a 5 percent chance that they’ll get their donation back, they see themselves as having a greater likelihood of getting their money back than they actually do. The other factor is that by merely agreeing to provide assistance, we get to enjoy the perk of feeling good without actually having to expend any money, time, or energy.

Of course, as the investigators also pointed out, this research has its issues. The money involved here was small (less than a dollar or a pound sterling), so it’s possible that people would make different decisions if we were talking about a larger donation. In addition, this technique could be used to hurt people by convincing them to give money beyond their means.

That being said, when it’s in proper, well-intentioned hands, the researchers are right in concluding that this approach also holds the potential to foster public-spirited acts of service that help others.


Anker, A.E., & Feeley, T.H. (2011). Are nonparticipants in prosocial behavior merely innocent bystanders? Health Communication, 26, 13-24.

Passarelli, T.O., & Buchanan, T.W. (2020). How do stress and social closeness impact prosocial behavior? Experimental Psychology, 67, 123-131.

Zürn, M. K., Gerten, J., & Topolinski, S. (2021, June 3). Maybe favors: How to get more good deeds done. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Advance online publication.

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