Whilst I was sitting in the library yesterday, I noticed a group of students walking around in some brightly coloured fancy dress, carrying buckets. They were clearly raising money for charity. A girl from this group, who at the time was wearing a neon tutu, was talking to a group of students at the computers when she said, "we're raising money for a really good cause. Please Help us. Any small change you have would improve these childrens' lives!" The phase "any small change you have would improve these childrens' lives" is a classic example of the persuasive technique of legitimizing paltry contributions.
The effect of legitimizing paltry contributions was shown in a study by Cialdini and Schroeder (1976). In this experiment, research assistants posing as door-to-door fundraisers for the American Cancer Society, knocked on the doors of 84 participants. When these participants answered the door, one of the "fundraisers" would say "I'm collecting money for the American Cancer Society". Then in half of the cases (the control condition), the fundraiser would then say "Would you be willing to help by giving a donation?" Meanwhile, in the other half (the even-a-penny condition), the fundraiser said instead "Would you be willing to help by giving a donation? Even a penny will help". Measures were taken of whether the participant gave money and also of how much money they gave.
The results showed that there was no significant differences between these two groups in the size of the donation received. However, participants in the even-a-penny condition were significantly more likely to provide a donation than the control subjects. This is shown in Figure 1 where 28.6% of the control subjects donated in comparison to 50% of those in the even-a-penny condition.
Figure 1. Percentage of those in the control and even-a-penny conditions that gave donations to the charity.
So, as you can see, whilst the girl's technique of legitimising paltry contributions won't effect the amount people donate, it will significantly increase the amount of people who will donate money and therefore, it is a very successful persuasive technique.
Caldini, R. B., & Schroeder, D. A. (1976). Increasing compliance by legitimizing paltry contributions: When even a penny helps. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, 599-604.