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Tell me about your last hug: How social support might impact contributions.

When your campaign’s survival hinges on the ability to get donors to part with their money, it’s helpful to know how to reduce the pain of giving.

And be clear – spending money is unquestionably painful for some people. It’s not just a metaphor – people actually feel a form of  pain when spending – activating a similar portion of the brain as people do when experiencing physical pain. (Rick, Cryder, and Loewenstein 2008; Kunutson, Rick, Wimmer Prelek & Loewenstein 2008). This “spending pain” is real – and can be intense.

People who feel physical pain have a myriad of ways to reduce it – ranging from medicinal pain killers to meditation.  One way studies have shown is to increase the subject’s perception of social support.

In short, if you give people encouragement or a feeling of family or community support, they feel less pain.   Experiments have demonstrated that the mere presence of a supporter – even an encouraging stranger – can reduce physical pain. (Brown, Nesse, Vinkour, & Smith 2003; Coan, Schafer, & Davidson, 2006)

Knowing this, four researchers, Qian Xu, Yuanji Zhou, Maolin Ye, and Xinyue Zhou, decided to examine whether the analgesic effect of perceived social support could also alleviate “spending pain.”

Message:  I care.

Not ones to avoid spoilers, the title of their study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology last year cuts to the chase:  “Perceived social support reduces the pain of spending money.”

The details are quite interesting:  the effect is not limited to the presence of another.  Their experiments show that spending pain (as reported by the subjects) was reduced if you asked them to name five people who provided them with social support. The reduction in pain was found to occur both before and after money was spent, though the effect was lessened when people spent money on essential items instead of pleasurable/hedonistic ones.

The painkilling effect of social support was shown to work – regardless of whether it came from the subject’s own recollection,  with strangers or with friends/family.

The relationship between money and social support makes sense. As the authors point out, both money and social support offer protection.  There is evidence that people use one to compensate for the other.  For example, they cite studies that show that adults with reduced social support put more focus on money (Vohs, Mead, and Goode 2003), and even children who are given encouragement from their peers show less materialism.  (Pieters 2013)

Just because you’re reducing the pain of spending does not necessarily mean the subjects will spend more -just that they might feel better about doing so.  While previous studies have shown that people spend more when shopping with others (Granbois 1968, Underhill 2004) – the researchers of this study did not find a link between social support and increased spending:

… we did not find a significant increase in spending for individuals with high perceived social support. Our findings may seem contrary to previous findings; however, we believe that perceived social support is different from the presence of other people. Specifically, merely being in the presence of others or shopping with others does not necessarily increase perceived social support in consumers. People do not always feel supported by being with others; they need to be with supportive figures to feel heightened social support. Therefore, the finding that shopping with others increases spending may not apply to the effect of perceived social support.

That said – it seems to make sense that people would be more apt to spend again if they didn’t feel pain (or as much pain) for doing it previously.  This hasn’t been studied yet – but it’s easy to imagine there would be less psychological resistance to something that is less painful.

PsyPology’s analysis

This results of this study have a lot of potential real-world applications to politics – and potentially not just fundraising.

First, it should be a primary mission of the campaign to not just bring in donations, but also reduce the pain of donating.  While reducing the pain of donations might not lead to higher spending, it makes sense that it would make future spending a little easier.

So how might a campaign reduce this pain?

One way would be to have your candidate, prior to making the ask at a fundraising call or speech, deploy similar techniques as the authors of this study:  Create a feeling of social support.

On a call, he or she could ask about family or their parents. They could ask about mentors. Ask the question “who is helping you”?

In a speech or a fundraising email, they could be more direct.  “I want you to think of at least one person who has given you encouragement… who has helped you along the way to get to where you are – or is helping you now.”  THEN make the ask.

Similarly, the fundraising team can be more deleberate about encouraging donors to bring guests (significant others, friends, etc.) to provide social support prior to an ask at a fundraiser.

Finally – we’re wondering whether the painkilling effect of social support might extend beyond the pain of spending to other kinds of mental anguish – like the pain of voting or the pain of giving up information.   It’s something we hope to see explored in future research.

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About the Author

Brian Franklin
Brian Franklin
PsyPology™ Founder and Editor

Brian Franklin is President of Impact Politics and founder/editor of PsyPology™ - political consulting's first blog providing psychology intel specifically for campaign operatives. Brian has provided marketing strategy, creative direction, language development, and writing services to over a hundred political campaigns, organizations, agencies, and corporations. He has led Impact Politics' work for numerous federal, state, county candidate, ballot initiative, public advocacy, and non-profit campaigns, as well as ad development and online media strategy for  international advocacy campaigns.

Brian is a Board Member of the American the American Association of Political Consultants and co-Chair of their Technology Committee. He is the author of a recent feature article in Campaigns and Elections magazine, “The Slow Boom of Campaign Technology.” In addition to his leadership role in the American Association of Political Consultants, Brian is also a member of the International Association of Political Consultants, Society for Consumer Psychology, Behavioral Science and Policy Association, and the International Society of Political Psychology.

Brian's work has earned prestigious national awards, such as the Pollie Awards for Best Overall Internet Campaign, Best Overall Campaign Use of Negative Contrast, Best Use of Facebook Advertising, Best Use of Search Engine Advertising, Best Use of Humor in an Online Ad, Best Online Ads, and more. Brian has also won a Campaigns and Elections Reed Award for Best Online Targeting.M/div>