How To Avoid Giving Regret – Understanding The Influence of Attentional Bias

school children in Ghana

by Gleb Tsipursky


I want to share my story to help you avoid the kind of regret I experienced as a deep churning in my stomach when I found out what bad decisions I made by giving to my favorite charity for many years.

Make-A-Wish Foundation helps kids with terminal diseases achieve a grand wish. For example, it could take the child and her family to Disneyland. It then shares the stories of these kids through their marketing materials. These stories are truly heartwarming. I fell for it, and donated every Giving Season, as I wanted to help kids have good lives.

However, my close friend Max Harms pointed out that Make-A-Wish Foundation makes 300 million per year telling these stories. Our brain is wired to have positive emotions from such stories, and therefore people like me donate.

By comparison, Max told me to consider the Against Malaria Foundation. It buys malaria nets that protect children in developing countries from mosquitoes carrying this deadly disease. Would not my goal of helping kids have good lives be achieved better by protecting them from death?

That question stopped me in my tracks. I had to think hard about why I gave to Make-A-Wish. I realized it was because they had heartwarming stories and great marketing that brought the stories to my attention. Our brains focus on things that come to our attention and not necessarily on things that are actually important for our goals, a thinking error called attentional bias.

What I failed to consider was the stories of children saved from malaria. I imagined a specific child, Mary, who did not get malaria because of my donation. I envisioned how Mary’s mother rocked Mary to sleep. I imagined Mary’s fifth birthday party, with her family all around. I imagined Mary’s first day of school. I imagined her first kiss. I imagined Mary growing up, becoming an adult, getting married, and having her own kids.

My last mental image was of Mary knitting in a rocking chair, enjoying her grandchildren’s laughter.

It was wonderful to imagine Mary’s life. By comparison to giving one positive story through Make-A-Wish, I could give Mary a lifetime of heartwarming stories. Besides, a bed net costs a few dollars, while a trip to Disneyland costs many thousands. For the same money, I can save not only Mary, but John, Ella, Sergio, Paula, Sarnur, Christian, and so many others. It was no contest.

Now I have nothing against Make-A-Wish Foundation. They do what they promised to do. It was a failure of my imagination that caused me to make bad decisions. From this experience, I learned that charities that are most effective in achieving my actual goals for donations are often not the ones with the best stories, and thus do not get funded.

Max then told me about Effective Altruism, a movement specifically set up to deal with such thinking errors. It uses data-driven strategies to promote charities that do the most good for the world. He advised me to check out GiveWell in particular, which provides research reports on the most effective charities.

He also suggested The Life You Can Save, whose charity impact calculatorenables you to put in your donation amount and learn immediately about the impact it makes.

I was sold! I never wanted to experience that deep churning in my stomach. So the next time you hear a great story from a charity that moves you, stop to consider the alternatives. Where else can you give your money to achieve the same ends with more impact per dollar?

I hope sharing publicly about my bad decisions helps you avoid giving regret and be truly effective in your altruism.

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