Unobserved altruism: How self-signaling motivations and social benefits shape willingness to donate

Jennifer Savary, Kelly Goldsmith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Public recognition is usually thought to motivate charitable giving. However, the current research identifies an important context in which the opposite occurs. We examine commonplace donation decisions involving modest amounts of money, which either take place in private, or are observed by others. We find robust evidence that public recognition can decrease donation likelihood. Furthermore, we demonstrate that this effect operates through a self-signaling mechanism: Public recognition creates ambiguity about whether the choice to donate is motivated by genuine altruism or the desire for recognition. As a result, public recognition can crowd out, or undermine, the self-signal of altruism, which in turn decreases donation rates. Finally, we test an important theoretical boundary, and show that when the social benefits associated with public recognition for donating are sufficiently valuable, the negative effects of public recognition attenuate.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)538-550
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Applied
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Altruism
  • Behavioral decision theory
  • Charitable giving
  • Self-signaling
  • Social-signaling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


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