Research Article: Too cold for warm glow? Christmas-season effects in charitable giving

Date Published: May 22, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Stephan Müller, Holger A. Rau, Christiane Schwieren.


This paper analyzes seasonal effects and their potential drivers in charitable giving. We conduct two studies to analyze whether donations to the German Red Cross differ between the Christmas season and summer. In study 1 we find that in the pre-Christmas shopping season prosocial subjects almost donate 50% less compared to prosocials in summer. In study 2 we replicate the low donations in the Christmas season. In an extensive questionnaire we control for several causes of this effect. The data suggest that the higher prosocials’ self-reported stress level, the lower the donations. The higher their relative savings, the lower the giving. Our questionnaire rules out that “donation fatigue” matters. That is, donations do not depend on the number of charitable campaigns subjects are confronted with and their engagement in these activities during Christmas season outside the lab.

Partial Text

In the United States, more than one third of annual donations (33.6%) happen in the “giving season” between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Similarly, the Center on Philanthropy [1] finds that 43% of high-income households donate more between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. The lion’s share can be attributed to December where 17.5% of the year’s donations are collected [2]. Likewise, most of the campaigns take place in the holiday time, an important factor, which may contribute to increased donations during the Christmas period. Data from 2017 reveal that on “Giving Tuesday” 2.4 million social media engagements happened for charitable giving purposes (see Cairns and Slonim [3] argue that donations in churches are higher at Easter and at Christmas. However, a possible reason for the increase in donations may be that more people go to church during holidays. In this vein, Greenberg [4] finds that during the holiday season tipping rates in restaurants are higher.

The objective of study 1 is to analyze whether subjects’ willingness to give differs between the Christmas season and summer. In a controlled-laboratory experiment, we analyze whether prosocials give more than individualists and whether the seasonal effect is more pronounced for prosocials.

To find explanations for the surprising lower donations of prosocials in winter, we ran a second study, which took place in November 2017. We also aim to replicate the Christmas-season effect we observed in study 1. In a questionnaire we ask subjects about their perceived level of emotional stress in the Christmas season to study whether lower donations may be linked to subjects’ self-reported stress levels. The reason is that stress is associated with a lower level of empathy [26]. Empirical findings highlight that stress may be of relevance in the Christmas period, as they show an increased rate of cardiac deaths between Thanksgiving and Christmas [27]. Another factor, which may lower the sum of donations is increased consumption spending around Black Friday. The reason is that substitution effects may play a role. If subjects consume more, there is less money left, which can be used for donations. Higher consumption activity during Black Friday may in turn amplify subjects’ stress levels. This may be due to the fact that subjects’ with increased consumption activity in the Christmas season may permanently try to chase for the best deals, within a limited time horizon. Moreover, there is evidence of a dead weight loss of Christmas [28] caused by information asymmetries between the person who buys a gift and the presentee. Thus, it is likely that most people feel stressed by the search for the right presents to meet the needs and the expectations of their family. For these reasons we launched the second study in the week after Black Friday, which is similar to the timing of study 1.

We studied seasonal effects in charitable giving. Our controlled experiment shows that donations are significantly lower by about 30% in the Christmas season than in summer. We identify prosocial subjects and demonstrate that the effect is driven by them, as they are not only less likely to donate in winter, but also give significantly less if they do donate. To find some explanations we focused on two empirical particularities of the Christmas season, i.e., higher stress levels and higher consumption spending. We ran a second donation study with an extensive questionnaire, focusing on questions about perceived stressed levels, saving and consumption patterns during the Christmas season. First, the data indicate that the higher prosocials’ stress level around Christmas relative to the rest of the year, the lower the donations. This link between stress and donations is suggested by the combination of the following evidence from research in economics and psychology. As more stress is associated with a lower level of empathy [26], more stress may translate into lower donations by eroding subjects’ warm glow—the positive emotional feeling people get from helping others [30, 31, 32, 33]. Evidence by Declerck and Bogaert [34] suggests that a prosocial SVO correlates positively with the ability to adopt another person’s point of view. Davis et al. [35] find that higher scores in empathy questionnaires are positively correlated with prosocial behavior such as charitable giving. Second, we find that the higher the subjects’ self-reported relative savings, the lower their donations. The finding of a lower willingness to donate during Christmas is important, as it suggests that higher donations in the last quarter of a year may be primarily driven by the demand side, i.e., by aspects like tax incentives and intensive campaign activities. We are aware that the results on the possible channels are only indicative, as alternative explanations may exist. Nevertheless, we believe that the findings are promising as they are a good starting point for follow-up research to isolate these explanations when analyzing the consequences of emotional states on charitable giving.