By Shreyans Goenka


Charities often employ positive emotions in their campaigns to nudge donations. Indeed, previous research has demonstrated that inducing positive emotions, as opposed to negative emotions, makes people more likely to behave altruistically and donate money. However, different charities seek to raise donations for different causes. Some charities aim to raise donations for humanitarian relief and welfare causes (e.g., American Red Cross, Feeding America, Make a Wish Foundation). Other charities seek to raise donations for freedom, justice, and equal rights causes (e.g., the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU], Human Rights Watch, Center for Constitutional Rights). Given that these different charities have different moral objectives, which positive emotion will be the most suitable for their respective campaigns? If the welfare charities, like the Red Cross, are seeking to highlight care moral values, which emotion will be the most effective for their campaign? Moreover, should the equality/justice charities, like the ACLU, which are seeking to highlight fairness moral values, use the same emotion?


In a recent article published in the Journal of Consumer Research, my co-author Stijn van Osselaer and I demonstrate that the Red Cross and ACLU should employ different emotions. We build upon the social functional framework of emotions to theorize and demonstrate that the congruence between the moral objective of an organization and the moral domain of an emotion can increase the effectiveness of donation campaigns. Charities seeking to promote welfare and humanitarian relief causes should employ an emotion that prioritizes the ethical concerns of care, but charities seeking to promote justice and equality causes should employ an emotion that prioritizes ethical concerns of fairness. Specifically, the Red Cross should utilize compassion, but the ACLU should use gratitude in their respective promotion campaigns.

To test our predictions, we conducted a field experiment. Shoppers in a grocery store were given a choice of donating money to one of three charities representing welfare morality, equality morality, or neither moral cause. At first, shoppers were equally likely to choose amongst three charities. That is, the percentage of shoppers donating to the fairness charity (34.2%), welfare charity (33.4%), and control charity (32.3%) were statistically equivalent. We then nudged donation choices using subtle emotions cues. We placed a small flyer with a gratitude cue (“Who are you grateful for today?’) above the donation boxes. The presence of this gratitude flyer significantly increased the percent of shoppers choosing the fairness charity (39.2%) compared to the welfare charity (31.0%) and control charity (29.9%). Next, when we placed a small flyer with a compassion cue (“Who needs your compassion today?”) above the donation boxes, this flyer significantly increased the percent of shoppers choosing the welfare charity (37.6%) compared to the fairness charity (32.3%) and control charity (30.1%).

Further, laboratory experiments demonstrated that gratitude increases donations to the equality charities by prioritizing moral concerns of fairness. Similarly, compassion increases donations to welfare charities by prioritizing moral concerns of care. Moreover, the effect is particular to emotions that evoke these moral values as similar positive emotions (happiness, love, and awe) did not show the same pattern of results.


Our research produces distinct implications for prosocial organizations by demonstrating the importance of moral congruence in motivating prosocial behaviors. While researchers have outlined various factors that can increase the effectiveness of prosocial campaigns, we present a new framework to consider when designing a prosocial marketing campaign – the congruence between the moral objective of the charity and the moral concern activated by the emotion. Altogether, our results show that organizations seeking to promote welfare and humanitarian causes should utilize compassion in their campaigns, over all other positive emotions. Contrastingly, organizations seeking to promote equality and justice causes should utilize gratitude in their campaigns. Thus each organization should identify the specific emotion that is congruent with their moral value to boost the effectiveness of the marketing campaign.

Notably, while our research focusses on examining moral congruence in the prosocial realm, our findings suggest implications for several other moral consumption contexts. For example, different ethical products (e.g., fair-trade products, organic foods, cruelty-free cosmetics) can also be promoted by leveraging moral congruency. That is, given that cruelty-free cosmetics emphasize welfare for animals, advertisements that utilize care inducing emotions (i.e., compassion) and care-related promotion messaging should be more effective in motivating preferences. Further, when brands support equality and justice causes (e.g., LGBTQ rights, refugee rights) they might utilize messages with fairness inducing emotions such as gratitude and fairness-related texts to increase the effectiveness of the message.

Finally, our findings extend the understanding of how discrete positive emotions can motivate unique preferences and behaviors. Our research predicts how compassion and gratitude will guide preferences and decision making in other contexts like social cooperation and ethical trade-offs. For example, if compassion prioritizes care, over other moral concerns, then compassionate people might be willing to help weaker members of the group even if that assistance violates fairness rules. On the other hand, if gratitude prioritizes fairness over other moral concerns, then grateful people might be more concerned about the fairness of the system and resist from breaking the rules to help a weaker member of the group.



Shreyans Goenka
Shreyans Goenka is a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University. He received his B.A. in economics and psychology (honors) from the University of Pennsylvania. His research explores consumer morality – the influence of moral beliefs on consumption preferences.
Shreyans Goenka

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