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Hometown U: It hurts to say 'no'

  • Author: Kathleen McCoy
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 23, 2015

An old adage about Alaskans claims we don't give a damn about "how they do it Outside."

New philanthropy research by three UAA undergraduates pretty much dissolves that claim, at least when it comes to soliciting money at a grocery story entrance. (The one exception is very chilly circumstances, but more on that in a moment. )

Jim Murphy is an economist and professor at UAA who also teaches an undergraduate course in experimental economics. This is a budding area that shifts from using mathematics to explain how people and markets behave, and instead recognizes that people and markets will behave differently depending on what's at stake.

About two years ago, Murphy dropped his normal class expectation for a final research paper. Not that the paper was a bad idea, Murphy said, it was just that it didn't engage students enough.

So he upped the ante. He asked for something much more hands-on: Run your own experiment.

Now, two years into Murphy's shift in expectations, two separate teams of students have successfully published their class project in professional economics publications. That's two papers in two years -- written by undergraduates: not an insignificant result. Murphy is proud.

But back to our money and grocery stores. Murphy is also a pragmatic man, and given that his students had just one semester to accomplish their goal, he invited them to replicate an experiment that had already been done… Outside.

Replication is essential, Murphy said. For one, maybe an experimenter just got lucky. Can the result be repeated, or was it a fluke? Moreover, what holds true in the Lower 48 may not be true for Alaskans, as we seem so fond of claiming. So, he challenged the students to run the experiment on Alaskans and find out.

That's just what Murphy's students (Andrew Steinkruger, Mackenzie Wood and Adam Wooster) did. They modified a study done in Boston, which used Salvation Army bell ringers at the entrance of a major supermarket. Shoppers could choose between entering a door with a solicitor present, or skirting the "ask" by heading to a more distant door without a solicitor.

The authors of the Boston study noted that people have an emotional response -- empathy -- when confronted with a request to give. Giving feels good; saying no feels bad. Recognizing this, if we are leaning towards a no, we may modify our path and choose a door without the solicitor, thus "avoiding the ask."

The Boston crew discovered that about a third of observed patrons avoided active solicitation by choosing a different doorway.

The Anchorage experiment featured a similar setting, a major grocery store with two entrances. The UAA students sold $1 lapel pins as an awareness campaign for polycystic kidney disease. They chose four days in November. They monitored patron-use of available doorways -- how they behaved if they'd confront a solicitor, or if no one was soliciting there.

Just as in the Boston study, a significant percentage of Alaskans veered away from that uncomfortable moment, choosing instead to walk to a more distant door without a solicitor. But the UAA students extended their research, almost accidentally.

The first three days of their study had normal winter temperatures, hovering at 20-30 degrees. But day four was zero degrees -- approaching record cold temperatures. Turns out, savvy Alaskans won't pay the extra price of a longer walk in frigid temperatures. They chose the closest door even if they knew they'd confront the solicitor, and have to deal head-on with the discomfort of saying no.

I'm not sure this qualifies as "we don't care how they do it Outside" as much as it represents core Alaska pragmatism, a "skookum" trait that probably fosters our survival in a harsh climate. I think we can feel good about that, even if we didn't donate a dollar for the lapel pin.

This study caught the eye of a brand new publication, the Journal of the Economic Science Association (http://www.springer.com/economics/economic+theory/journal/40881), which made it their lead story. Unlike many academic journals, this download is free because the journal is so new. So go read about yourself as a conflicted philanthropist (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40881-015-0006-2).

The second paper by another group of Murphy's students (Nomin Batmunkh, Ben Nilsson and Samantha Ray) has made its way into a book that will be published soon.

The results of this experiment came down hard on the side of Alaskans not really caring about how folks do it Outside. It replicated a study at a National Public Radio affiliate in Philadelphia during a fundraising drive. New donors who called in were greeted with a report on what a previous donor gave. Their research question was whether the mention of a high gift amount affected the donation of the current caller.

In Philly, it did. That's not to say a report of a large gift meant the current caller matched it, Murphy said. But instead, higher amounts -- say $300 -- might move the current caller from $25 to $50. "It tended to edge them up a bit," Murphy said.

Well, in this case, the old Alaska adage held. In contrast to the city of brotherly love, "Our study (done with local public radio) shows Alaskans are not sensitive to that cue at all," Murphy said.

As the students and their research discovered, we remain stubbornly independent.

Kathleen McCoy works for UAA where she highights campus life in social and online media.

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