The Blonde Effect

Researcher contributes to national news with study on charitable giving

This originally appeared in RLIFE Magazine, August 2006.

Last year in North Carolina, a group of university students went door-to-door asking for donations. Their beneficiary was a research center at East Carolina University studying hazard mitigation. The students had a prepared set of questions and answers for their potential donors as they knocked on 1,700 doors in economically diverse neighborhoods in Pitt County, N.C.

As part of their prepared script, one group of students offered their potential donors an incentive: If the potential donor contributed to their children’s hospital campaign, the donors’ names would be added drawing for a prize at the end of the campaign. It was an added opportunity to both contribute to a cause and to potentially win a prize when the campaign ended.

Another group of students asked just for money without an added inducement.

At the time, the students thought they were part of an economics study trying to determine if the incentive to win a prize led to increased amounts of money donated.

* * *

This year at the University of Nevada, Reno, students taking Applied Economics 202 were presented with photographs of the North Carolina students. Their task: to rank the beauty of the East Coasters. The criteria they were given was their own personal view of how attractive they perceived their East Coast counterparts.

The results of this research ended up making national news. It was discovered that white blondes soliciting door-to-door for charities can raise more money—70 percent more—than brunettes or non-white females.

The study’s results, which were recently published the Quarterly Journal of Economics, found that the physical appearance of average-looking white females raised about $1 per household when soliciting for charity. A white female ranked as beautiful raised an average of $1.70 per household, a 70-percent increase.

University of Nevada, Reno researcher Michael Price is a co-author of the study. As assistant professor of resource economics—a field of study that examines, among other things, the value of non-tangible goods such as clean air and water—Price says the study’s findings indicate that perceived beauty has monetary worth.

“We found what marketers have known for years—beauty sells,” Price says.

Contrary to marketing studies, however, Price says that he and his colleagues’ study better isolated physical appearance as a variable.

Price cautions, however, that his research discovered that the race of the potential donor also had an effect on how much money was donated. A white blonde was less successful asking for money from a cultural minority than when a minority asked another minority for money. Physical attractiveness, though, influenced amounts of giving despite race.

An attractive non-white female, in other words, was just as successful as an attractive blonde if the race of the potential donor was similar to her own.

“What is valued in physical appearance is relatively stable across cultures,” Price says.

The original intent of the study was to determine whether giving to a charity was affected by adding a drawing to receive a prize at the end of the campaign. Price and his colleagues wanted to know: Would this lottery, as an added incentive to donate, influence the likelihood of receiving more donations?

The answer is yes.

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“In determining what influences individual donations, we were able to compare the effects of economic factors such as the chance of winning a lottery prize with non-economic factors such as the physical appearance of a solicitor,” Price says.

But another, unintended discovery was made when Price and his colleagues set to analyze the data from their door-to-door solicitations.

The “lottery effect”—what Price and his colleagues originally set out to explore—was just as strong as what they are now calling “the blonde effect.”

A replication of the study, filmed in Chicago, was subject of a 20/20 episode in April. ABC’s John Stossel interviewed Price’s University of Chicago colleague John List, a co-author of the study. ABC’s replication of the study confirmed the researchers’ findings. Brunettes solicited for money one day, then went out the next with their hair dyed blonde.

Surprising both the solicitors and Stossel himself, the blonde effect held true. The solicitors as blondes raised more money than when they were brunettes.

Price says the relevance of this study is clear. Non-profits or organizations that rely on donations and fund raising to support certain causes can consider the results of this research in two ways.

Adding incentives to donations can influence the amount donated. So too does the attractiveness of the fund raiser. The perceived attractiveness, that is.

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