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Why does cold water on our heads increase charitable giving?

Design-thinking, Marketing, Psychology

Image by Flickr user Anthony Quintano; used under Creative Commons Attribution licence

Silly, narcissistic, irresponsible are some of the adjectives that the “ice-bucket challenge” has received from its critics.

This is an initiative that was created to raise money for charities and consists of someone pouring a bucket of ice-cold water over their head, making a video of it and posting it on social networks (e.g. Facebook, Twitter). After that, they challenge some friends in the video to do the same within 24 hours or donate a given amount of money to a charity (most people do both).

Many people are wondering why the theatre with the bucket is necessary in order to donate? Is it not enough for people to just give the money if they feel like supporting a given cause? Is it really worth wasting all that water?

At least for the ALS Association, a charity aiming to support patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), this strategy has been extremely valuable. In the first two weeks of August they were able to raise as much as $13.3 millions in donations by using the ice-bucket strategy. Last year, when this bucket challenge was not present, they raised about $1.7 million during the same period. So, they are now receiving almost 8 times the money they obtained last year. After all, it seems that the bucket challenge is not that silly.

Why can the ice-bucket challenge increase donations?

Insights from behavioural science can shed some light on the reasons explaining the relationship between pouring cold water on our heads and giving to charity.

Most people assume that the motivation behind charitable giving is to provide relief to those in need. If it is the case, informing people about the ones needing more help should be enough to motivate them to give some money away. However, evidence from psychology and economics suggest that there are other drivers explaining peoples’ donations. For instance, Cotterill, John and Richardson (2010) found that donations were higher when the names of the people donating were publicised compared to the situation in which donations were anonymous. Also, small gift to donors as a way to thank them for the contribution have been found effective on increasing donations. Another robust finding is that people are more willing to give more to charities when the impact of the donation goes to an individual beneficiary (e.g a child) than to a group of beneficiaries (e.g. a community).

These findings, and many more, suggest that people not only care about providing relief to those in need but also feel good about themselves when giving to others.

So, how does it relate to the ice-bucket challenge? One of the most common ways in which people can feel good about themselves is by receiving positive feedback from others. In this regard, the ice-bucket challenge simply makes the charitable action visible to a huge amount of people on social networks. Moreover, it not only allows people to show how good they are for contributing but also that they are willing to sacrifice themselves (by receiving the cold water) in order to support a good cause.

There is another key element that could explain the success of the ice-bucket challenge. Its design not only encourages participants to donate, but it has also been very effective on getting people to recommend the charity to others. People usually recommend things that make them look good. For example, Wojnicki and Godes (2008) evaluated the willingness to recommend a service (e.g., a restaurant) after a positive experience, but in one group the decision of visiting the place was a participant choice whereas in another group it wasn’t. They found that people who had the possibility of making the consumption decision were more likely to recommend the restaurant. It suggests that people want to communicate something about them when recommending something (e.g. they are knowledgeable about a topic or an altruist). In the case of the bucket challenge, the design means that the charity contributor always has to talk about their donation (by challenging a friend).

Last but not least, we can mention the fact the many high profile celebrities have also taken part in the initiative. It helps create a “social norm” that establishes the donation as the right thing to do.

Learning from the ice-bucket challenge

Some people have said that it is not ethically acceptable to be wasting a bucket of water when roughly one in ten of the world’s population have no access to safe water (WHO/UNICEF). However others argue that stopping the ice-bucket campaign will not bring any benefits to those suffering from a lack of safe water. Regardless of your position about the topic, identifying the success factor of the ice-bucket challenge could be useful for both charities and marketers in general in their attempt to get ideas diffused.


Juan Carpio is a PhD candidate in the Behavioural Science Group at Warwick Business School, working jointly with the Design Council. You can contact him at: phd12jc@mail.wbs.ac.uk.

His PhD research explores the variables that can make products and services more likely to be adopted and diffused in a social system. We welcome any interest in research collaboration with either academic institutions or industry.

© 2015 Warwick Business School and the Design Council