There is clearly something very funny about Red Nose Day. The biennial event of the charity Comic Relief raises vast sums of money for good causes. It also attracts millions of television viewers keen to watch famous people make them laugh – and donate cash. Red Nose Days have so far raised over £1billion.
So how does Comic Relief achieve such feats of fund raising? Whether they realise it or not, the organisers have managed to tap in to several factors which, research shows, boost our desire to give.
To begin with, big events such as Comic Relief benefit from their own success, in that donating becomes a behavioural “normality”. We have a sense that everyone else around us – at home, at work, in our social lives – is doing it. When an act is widely considered to be morally desirable, as with giving to charity, there is also a strong sense that people close to you would approve of you donating. This is known as an “injunctive norm”.
But as well as being influenced by the actions and opinions of our friends, family and colleagues, we are also swayed by the behaviour of people or organisations we don’t know. This is particularly true if we trust and like them. The celebrities and brands involved with Comic Relief may increase donations through this mechanism, too.
Celebrities in particular are often well liked, so their opinions are considered trustworthy and valuable. Large, well established and popular charities such as Oxfam supporting (and benefiting from) Red Nose Day adds an element of expertise, building the idea that giving to Comic Relief is a genuinely good way to help others.
The sense that everyone else is getting involved can also lead to people asking “Why not donate?” instead of “Why should I donate?” This change in the framing of the question we ask ourselves is more likely to result in the behaviour taking place. If we need to find a reason not to donate, giving becomes the default response.
Once we have decided to go ahead and donate, other people can influence how much we give. By regularly announcing (to cheers from the studio audience) the fund raising totals of individuals or companies, Comic Relief presenters provide a benchmark for others to base their donations on. They develop a sense of friendly competition over who can raise the most.
Obviously, it wouldn’t be Comic Relief without the comedy. Some research suggests being in a good mood, in this case from laughing, leads to people feeling more generous and making larger donations. But even if the link is not so straightforward, it’s likely that mixing hard hitting appeals with comedy prevents viewers from experiencing empathy fatigue or “burn-out” and emotionally (or literally) switching off.
It’s an established finding from neuroscientific research that giving to charity activates areas of our brain which respond positively to rewards such as food, suggesting it simply feels good to give. Feeling a warm glow from giving could be enhanced if we are also in a good mood from our favourite celebrities doing something amusing. If we attribute this pleasant feeling to making a donation, it makes us more likely to give again in future.
Raising money is funny
One key reason for giving to charity is to have a positive impact on the people who receive the donation. It makes sense then, that the bigger the impact, the more we are inclined to give. A single donation to charity can sometimes feel like a drop in the ocean. But Comic Relief may also benefit from the fact that because they raise such a large sum of money, each person contributing feels like they are part of something bigger which will really make a difference.
This sense of making a difference is even stronger when we hear individual people’s stories, something Comic Relief does very powerfully with their moving filmed appeals. Having so many people in need could be overwhelming if it weren’t for the vast amounts of money being raised, which makes the viewer optimistic that the people featured in these films can actually be supported.
And supported they have been – for over 30 years. Pointing out the psychological mechanisms behind our generosity is not meant to seem uncharitable. In reality, everything we do or think has an underlying psychological explanation – it’s just that most of the time we are not aware of it.
Giving to charity is something most people believe is a good thing to do. But for much of the year, our daily lives and worries get in the way of remembering the people who need our help. If behavioural norms, some comedy and a nudge of positive feelings can motivate me to actually pick up my smartphone and donate, then personally I’m more than happy to be influenced by all those funny red noses.