People do bad things. Sometimes we like to think that we’re not that bad by comparing ourselves to other people. “Yeah, that guy cut me off in traffic and I gave him the one-finger salute and a few choice words, but it’s not like I killed him.” But, in general, even the best among us do bad things. It would be great if we could stop doing them, but I don’t have much hope for that happening. But then I came across an article on the New York Times’ Economix blog that made a lot of sense.
The post, “Swear-Jar Economics”, by Catherine Rampell suggests that when you do something bad, you punish yourself in a meaningful way: by donating money to a charity you hate. I think it’s brilliant. The ordinary swear-jar wasn’t much more than a piggy bank. That is, you said a bad word, and you put in a quarter or a dollar or whatever. But that doesn’t really cost you anything until you decide what happens to the money.
If you buy something for yourself with the money, there’s little deterrent in that. You need to spend the money on something more selfless. If you buy something for a friend or family member, you’re moving in the right direction, but you still aren’t likely to be too deterred. Then there’s giving the money to a stranger–through a charity. Now you’re approaching selfless behavior. But that’s where the catch comes in. If you give the money to a charity that you support, the act isn’t as selfless as it could be. After all, provided you had the extra resources, isn’t there a good chance that you would freely choose to support your favorite charity financially? But what about a charity you can’t stand? Maybe you even have a hard time calling it a charity. Maybe non-profit organization is easier for you to swallow. I, for instance, would never want to give money to the Tea Party of my own free will. In fact, the idea of parting with some of my money for their benefit makes me a little bit nauseous. If, every time I cursed, I sent the Tea Party $50, I bet you I’d clean up my mouth in a hurry.
So the first important point is that you give the money to a charity you dislike. The second important point is that it actually has to be painful financially. I might hate the principal of giving any money to an organization I dislike, but if it’s a trivial amount of money, I probably won’t dwell on it for long. So the amount must be sufficient enough to sting a little. Satisfy those two conditions and you have the setup for self-promoting good behavior–and offsetting bad behavior with a charitable donation. And here’s a neat catch: If you support charity A and dislike charity B, and your bad behavior is causing you to cough up lots of cash for charity B, maybe that’s a good thing–think about it.