Treasures or trash?

In the wake of disasters, what governments and humanitarian organizations need is cash. Instead, what they too often get is stuff. No matter how often the message gets repeated, people love sending tangible physical goods.

New research suggests that unconscious bias plays a big role in this. People assume that their cash may be misappropriated or wasted – while they assume that the teddy bear or blanket that they send will go immediately into the hands of a grateful family.

In reality, the costs of sending tangible goods far exceed the benefits. They are just a pain to deal with, and a lot of those teddy bears end up getting burned or trashed.

The firm The Behavioral Architects conducted research to find the most effective way of dissuading people from giving goods and persuading them to give cash. Factual, rational statements emphasizing that cash is better hardly moved the needle.  What did was this statement: “Many donated goods sent to a disaster zone end up in a landfill.”

It’s not clear why, but I assume this statement activates a very clear image in people’s minds – that cute teddy bear or blanket that they just purchased ending up buried in a mountain of dirt, never to be seen again. That’s not only wasteful, but kind of sad.

As the authors conclude, this points out the importance of understanding people’s beliefs and misbeliefs before launching an attempt to change behavior.