What do a giant hole, volunteering in Africa and the ice bucket challenge have in common?
Unless you’ve had your head in a hole for the past week you will have been aware of “Black Friday”. The company behind the “party game for horrible people”, Cards Against Humanity has developed a tradition for “alternative” Black Friday celebrations. Two years ago, they sold literal b*llsh*t – a box of cow poo – for $6. Over 30,000 people snapped up this deal. Then last year for $5, customers could buy nothing. The employees simply kept the $71,000 and posted a list of what each had spent their share on.
This year’s Holiday Hole campaign raised $100,573 to dig a giant pointless hole which, this video confirms, was dug on Sunday. This raises quite a few questions including why thousands of people wasted their money on a pointless hole. And perhaps more importantly, why didn’t the company spend the money on something more worthwhile, such as a charitable donation?
Considering the latter, it’s clearly not because they are opposed to charity, having previously raised millions of dollars for various causes. So did the organisers of the Holiday Hole campaign have a moral obligation to give away this sum too? Personally, I don’t think we can blame them. All they did was give people the opportunity to give money towards digging a hole. With over 1 million charitable organisations in the USA alone, it’s not like people needed an additional opportunity to give. As a tweet so brilliantly summed up:
Ice bucket challenge
So this brings us to the question of why people would spend money on a pointless hole rather than anything else, including a charity donation. I think a big part of the answer links to wanting to be involved with something unique and (arguably) funny and be the sort of person who gets involved with such things. This is pure speculation but I bet a lot of the people that gave towards the hole told others about it, either through social media or face to face. And this is where the ice bucket challenge link comes in because I would guess similar mechanisms were at play there. It was something people were talking about, something very obvious to post on social media, and the charity element gave people a “good person” reputation on top of being a bit daring.
As it was already a good cause, not many people questioned the decision of giving to ALS or motor neurone disease charities, rather than other organisations. As well as the fact they were doing a good thing, I think this is likely to be because the challenge, started by the ALS Association, gave people the decision: donate to ALS Association or don’t give and keep the money. In the same way, the Holiday Hole campaign offered a choice between hole or no hole. Even though they could have given the money to charity, there was no explicit third option of donating which people ignored. This is an example of compartmentalising, our tendency to separate our spending into separate chunks and don’t see one chunk as affecting another.
So perhaps the money towards the hole came from the “doing fun things” pot of money, which is seen as separate from the “charitable donations” pot. Just because someone has money to spend on things they don’t need, does not mean they will be equally motivated to spend this spare cash on different alternatives. If the option to dig a hole hadn’t been given to them, it’s unlikely they would have given the money to a charity instead. They wouldn’t have been motivated to give by feeling fun and quirky or having an amusing story to tell others.
This is where I also see parallels with the criticisms of “voluntourism” trips that the person going abroad to volunteer should have simply given the cost of their flights, accommodation etc to a charity to employ local people to do the work. The organisations they work through didn’t give them that third option in the decision and there’s a good reason why. People get much more out of jetting off to help rather than putting the same amount of effort into just fundraising the money. Not just the experience but also the sense of identity from being someone who does good things and makes sure others know about it. (See Barbie Saviour for a parody of social media posts on voluntourism). Having an option there to give all the money and stay at home, reframes the decision. The most beneficial option becomes giving money and potential volunteers may be put off wanting to do something second best as it draws attention to their motivation to get something out of it themselves.
All of these examples suggest that when we make a decision between two alternatives, we often do so without considering any other options. It then becomes pointless to suggest other options after the decision has been made because the third option is not what motivated the action. In cases where the decision resulted in something beneficial but perhaps not the most beneficial, it is easy to argue the person should have done the most beneficial thing instead. However, as this is not the decision that was presented, you cannot assume that someone would have been equally motivated to do the best thing for whatever reason. It is a challenge for charities to make the most beneficial and the most motivating option the same option.
A helpful hole?
It is also hypocritical to criticise only a handful of decisions for being wasteful rather than beneficial. We probably only notice this issue in a few cases because compartmentalising comes so naturally to us. When was the last time you challenged yourself or others for buying bottled water or some other unnecessary luxury as the money could have gone to charity? Why do people who decided to buy a bigger TV or newer iPhone on Black Friday escape the criticism aimed at the Holiday Hole? Maybe we should all bear in mind that some things are worth spending money on, even if they are in a different compartment or outside the options of the decision you’re making. So next time you go to spend spare money, take a moment longer to think what else you could do with it. If the Holiday Hole could inspire this reflection, maybe it was worth $100,000.