Vivid story about an apartment fire triggers altruism.

A vivid story can put us in a more altruistic mode, a study shows. UK researchers looked at the two ways people think about death – abstractly or specifically. They used a detailed story which placed the reader in a burning apartment to activate specific death thoughts. A second group of subjects answered more general questions about death, while a control group was exposed to non-death-related material. They then gave subjects a second item to read, an article about blood donations which came in two versions, suggesting that blood donations were either at record highs or record lows. Finally, all subjects were given the opportunity to express an interest in donating blood.

The results of the experiment were interesting. The subjects primed with general thoughts of death were the most altruistic, but only when the need was high. The subjects who were primed with more specific thoughts about death (the vivid apartment fire) saw an increase in altruism compared to the control group even if the need was low.

Non-profit Death Stories?

What are the neuromarketing implications for nonprofit marketers? The first takeaway is the priming the potential donor or volunteer with thoughts about mortality can increase altruism. The second is that under many, if not most, circumstances, a more vivid and personal story about death may work better than a more general priming effort. Many charities may not be able to convey a perception of immediate high need like the record low blood donation story (though many try to do so), and the vivid/personal prime would be expected to work better in circumstances where critical need is less apparent.

We also know that our brains find stories to be particularly engaging (see Why Stories Sell, Your Brain on Stories), and you are much more likely to hold a reader’s attention with a descriptive story than an abstract discussion.

The real challenge, I think, is to turn this research into an actionable strategy that doesn’t turn off donors or volunteers with its morbid tone. “Let’s think about death…” just won’t cut it in most situations. The way I’d do this is to create a scenario in which the thoughts are created but the efforts of the nonprofit are related to a solution. For example, the original experiment used visualization of an apartment fire. A charity for injured firefighters, or a group that assists victims of disasters, could easily weave the original scenario into a description of the important work done by their organization. More generally, thoughts of mortality could tie into bequest solicitations, a story about a deceased donor who made a difference, etc.

As always, you should test different versions of your solicitation, as translating a general strategy into a specific marketing piece can be tricky. More information on the research:
How Thinking About Death Affects Behavior
OST Update: The Grim Reaper Revisited by Wray Herbert
People who dwell on their own mortality ‘are more likely to donate to charity’
Of Blood and Death: A Test of Dual-Existential Systems in the Context of Prosocial Intention

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