John List and the economics of charity

Here is my New York Times column today.  The focus is on how we often make bad charitable decisions.  Excerpt:

…before we can improve our charity, we must first understand it. John A. List, an economist at the University of Chicago,
is studying fund-raising campaigns toward this end. Professor List,
combining his career as a researcher with a role as part-time
consultant, introduces variations into real world fund-raising
campaigns and studies the results. This reflects his core method of the
"field experiment," which he has applied to topics as diverse as
competition between the genders, how contestants cooperate on
television game shows and how markets work in baseball card trading.
Steven D. Levitt, co-author of "Freakonomics" and a colleague at the
University of Chicago, refers to Professor List as the young economist
most likely to win a Nobel Prize.

Here is another bit:

For purposes of contrast, Professor List and his team then increased
the attractiveness of the woman who asked for the money. The more
attractive women (a "one standard deviation increase in
attractiveness," in statistical terms) had as big a positive impact on
giving – in the range of 50 to 100 percent – as moving from the least
successful fund-raising method to the most successful.


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