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Keywords:

  • martyrdom effect;
  • self-sacrifice;
  • charity;
  • prosocial behavior;
  • fundraising

ABSTRACT

Most theories of motivation and behavior (and lay intuitions alike) consider pain and effort to be deterrents. In contrast to this widely held view, we provide evidence that the prospect of enduring pain and exerting effort for a prosocial cause can promote contributions to the cause. Specifically, we show that willingness to contribute to a charitable or collective cause increases when the contribution process is expected to be painful and effortful rather than easy and enjoyable. Across five experiments, we document this “martyrdom effect,” show that the observed patterns defy standard economic and psychological accounts, and identify a mediator and moderator of the effect. Experiment 1 showed that people are willing to donate more to charity when they anticipate having to suffer to raise money. Experiment 2 extended these findings to a non-charity laboratory context that involved real money and actual pain. Experiment 3 demonstrated that the martyrdom effect is not the result of an attribute substitution strategy (whereby people use the amount of pain and effort involved in fundraising to determine donation worthiness). Experiment 4 showed that perceptions of meaningfulness partially mediate the martyrdom effect. Finally, Experiment 5 demonstrated that the nature of the prosocial cause moderates the martyrdom effect: the effect is strongest for causes associated with human suffering. We propose that anticipated pain and effort lead people to ascribe greater meaning to their contributions and to the experience of contributing, thereby motivating higher prosocial contributions. We conclude by considering some implications of this puzzling phenomenon. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.