Thursday, November 08, 2012

Psychology of campaign donations: reverse-causation giving

I made my first donation to Obama's reelection campaign more or less when first asked, in February 2011, and doled it out in gradually accelerating dribs and drabs as campaign season kicked into gear, keeping a rough count in my head -- corrected and ratified, starting I think this past August, with occasional emails from the campaign spelling out the total.  I went from about once a month to twice a month to 3x at the end, and I let various moments of personal anxiety or perceived need (almost never induced by the 20 emails a day I was getting) spike it.

As with voting, if you're not a megadonor you know your money won't make a measurable difference -- my $100 won't make a dent in the $10 million Super PAC buy I just read about. So why do it?   The simple answer is you do what you can and hope others will too -- but over time I noticed a slightly magical element to that. It seems I was acting on a kind of reverse causation assumption: that I was part of a kind of herd mind, and that if I decided to donate at a particular moment, it was a good bet that others would too. So I could make it happen by letting it happen.

The same assumption was operative in canvassing and making campaign calls: the degree to which I pushed or didn't push myself would reflect the degree to which others made similar decisions. To the extent that one hits the button to tweet or post on Facebook the donation or phoning session just executed, there's even a kernel of fact underpinning this mental maneuver.

There was another factor at work that sometimes inhibited my donations, though not the final total, since I had that more or less budgeted all along.  Silly as they are in their way, I was hoping that my wife and I could attend what you might call a midlevel donor event, and I was mentally prepared to set down a chunk of change for tickets.  One such event, at the Apollo theater, took place on a night when my wife had to work; another we never heard of until it happened, and there were in fact very few, at least as far as I'm aware, in the New York metro area.

I am celebrity-phobic -- I have zero desire to meet actors or musicians or whatnot -- and I fiercely resented all those dumb-assed 'sweepstakes' pitches to be flown to a high-end donor party or other event and mingle with the stars as queen for a day.  I found them insulting.  I wanted to pay a fair price for a ticket -- say, $100 to $500  -- and maybe get a chance to shake the president's hand and say a word. Didn't happen.

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