There’s an interesting little factoid in the endnotes section of Superfreakonomics. Which is saying something, because the whole book — as well as its predecessor, Freakonomics — is gloriously full of interesting little factoids.
In my childhood church environment, we took the offering by passing a big, shallow, flat plate from person-to-person, row-to-row. People would put their money in. It was all quite visible. People could see how much you donated and you could see what your neighbor put in, too.
Not every church does it that way. An economist named Adriaan Soetevent did an experiment in thirty Dutch churches a few years back. These churches passed a closed bag from person-to-person rather than an open plate. As part of his experiment, however, Soetevent convinced the churches to let him change the way they took the offering. For several months, on random occasions, he would substitute an open collection plate instead of the closed bag.
His theory was that the visibility of the open plate might lead to different donation patterns than the relative privacy of the closed bag.
Soetevent was right. At the end of the experiment, the stats showed that churchgoers gave more money when an open basket or plate was passed. More bills, fewer small coins, increased donations all the way around. You can download the full study here.
I’m not surprised by the results. I think people will always give more when under increased scrutiny. But I’m more interested in the larger conclusion at the base of it: that even in churches, we are so focused on what people think of us that we allow it to dictate our behavior.
On a related note, this Freakonomics blog post mentions the study in the context of answering a fascinating letter from someone who admits to faking Christianity in order to be more accepted among their social group. Wow.
How much of our religiosity is more influenced by our peers than our personal faith?
What would you do differently if you didn’t care what people thought of you?
If we’re following someone who claimed to be Truth, what benefit is there in faking any aspect of our commitment?