Why do people donate blood?

In the study of economics, a person is represented as being a rational individual, making choices that will benefit himself. The Library of Economics (which, by the way, is quickly becoming one of my favorite websites) calls this person the “Economic Man” and describes him as always looking out for himself: He does not give to charity, nor would he ever volunteer his time.

Recently, I’ve been pondering the question of why do people perform selfless acts; more specifically, why do people donate blood? This question leads me into a field of economics called behavioral economics, which I have become increasingly interested in. Behavioral economics is a sort of mixture between economics and psychology, and studies the ways in which human behavior is irrational and unpredictable.

Back to the question at hand, why does a person donate blood? There’s really no clear cut answer; some like donating because it is a good deed and makes them feel good about themselves, while others may like the prestige or recognition they receive. Regardless of their reason, the sacrifice of giving is worth the satisfaction they receive, so in a way they are still making a choice that benefits themselves. This type of situation can be described as self-interested altruism.

I started reading the book Freakonomics the other day, and at one point it discusses that when people were given a small stipend for giving blood, donations actually decreased. What was once seen as a noble charity was reduced to a painful and cheap way to make a few dollars. People want to feel proud of themselves and the choices they’ve made. To those who choose to donate blood, it’s a sub-conscious economic decision.

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  • I knew I had read something on this not too long ago, so I went back through my Google Reader shared items and found this post from last October.

    The post also references this TED talk, which I’m pretty sure I viewed at some point.


    • Allison Guerny says:

      Gave the TED video a watch and it was quite interesting! The article was also enlightening, particularly the study involving lawyers. (This experiment was also mentioned in Predictably Irrational, the book I am currently reading, which I thought was cool.) Thanks for the links!

  • Joao Pedro Afonso says:

    Why I’m felling provoked to comment your post? There is no money here to me, you don’t know me from anywhere (so there will be not even a measure of respect to gain… even because I’m not sure if I’ll return), and I have work to present tomorrow… I shouldn’t be doing it, yet, I’m doing it. It is utterly “irrational”. To comment in blogs is a lot like to give blood… in more than one sense, is actually exactly the same.

    But that doesn’t stop me, nor did stopped Everette, nor did stop Allison from posting or comment others. So, in the end, I’m here, writing and felling guilty about it because… because the text to comment it precisely about attempts to rationalize the human behavior under which, mine ends tagged irrational. I need to apply some effort to understand that the rationality we are speaking about is a stolen word by the science discipline “economy”, and the implicit judgment in it is made under the rules of what economy understand rationality. The distinction is important because, for all the importance and respect I concede to economy as a way to manage our scarce resources, I risk to believe that it knows of what it speaks… and instead of having a science trying to studding what is rational, we end up with one defining it what it is rational… opening the way to state positions to be followed blind.

    My perplexity to the turnarounds in the subject of blood donation reported by Freaknomics, drinks from the same well that produced our conventional wisdom against concepts like nepotism, corruption, golden shares or state owned enterprises, etc… all these criticized for fear that they’ll lead to economic decisions motivated by non-economic motives, forfeiting the advantages of “economic rationality”. However, what the blood donation episode hint us is that “economic rationality” might impoverish us instead of the opposite. There is no other interpretation I can give when I see that the introduction of economic motives leads to less blood offer and not more: we have less, not more, so, we are poorer. Since this is a direct attack against economic rationality, no wonder all these other studies about “behavioral economics” and others. They must be answered before other economic “truths” became in check. But I can only see two ways of doing that: accept the possibility of human irrationality, or introducing new kinds of coin… either way, the conventional wisdom which supported many of our appointed “truths” is at check and must be revised.

    • Allison Guerny says:

      I definitely find the topic of rational behavior vs. irrational behavior to be very interesting, your comment just highlighting a few of the many different ways to weigh decisions we make. Even something as simple as spending time reading someone’s blog and commenting can be analyzed in a variety of ways.

      (That being said, whatever “irrational” reason that keeps leading you back to my blog, I hope it continues as I find your comments to be quite insightful. :)

      • Joao Pedro Afonso says:

        Don’t worry, my irrationality is out of-the-chart. :-)

        (you must have seen that already at Wiseman’s blog)

        I came to believe that for the traditional economy, “irrational” is the human behavior not aimed at maximization of economical resources, commonly represented by… money. But we embark in economical adventures to gain the resources to live, to eat, have a place to sleep and have the opportunity to appreciate life. In other words, we won money to spend money, we are “rational” to be able to be “irrational”, being “irrational” the life itself. Maybe this explains why I feel so irritated when I think in the “Economic Man” used by Economy. I understand why he appears: to have his place between the trustful sciences, economy needs to be able to predict, and being the Economy (the environment, not the discipline) made by people interacting, it would have be excessively difficult to do so if it didn’t ascribed a common behavior to them. The “Economic Man” doesn’t exist. Instead, he is the distillation into one person of the mob mentality we attribute to the whole economy and which have gave us enough successes already. He is like the free atom to which we assign a thermal energy of 3KT/2, when in fact, it may have any, from zero to all. When we are in rush or when our bases are not solid, it’s easy to forget that, and that’s my concern for the “economical man”, that we might confound him with the real human being, or with what humans must be.

        You already approached the topic of the politicians who propose to look good… the first rule of action to them is to deal with accepted simple images, images which appears true even if not (a true image which appears not, has the disadvantage of needing an additional effort to dis-mystify it in the minds of the voters; it is not… rationally economical to do so, for the “economical politician man”). The “economical man” is one of those ideas, easy to be prey to demagogy.

        Why do I resent that, someone might ask? Because successful ideas has a way of overextend themselves which are not always healthy. The language of the Natural Selection theory, for instance, ended heavily contaminating (or offering cover) to ideas of social selection and even today, there are those who blame the Nazism on Darwin (usually creationists turning a convenient blind eye to deaths for religious motives). Natural selection doesn’t negate cooperation, symbiosis or altruism in the natural world, but being the strengths of those concepts more difficult to explain, they were easy to overlook. In the same way, in times of crisis when we earn for a good economy, the reliance of the economical sciences in the “economical men” to attain it means the trend is going to look for him, to wish for him, to impose him… forgetting he is only one face of a bigger multifaceted reality, including an essential “non-economical men” too. I see signs of it in the way how we were able to express surprise for the blood donation. To give blood should have be the natural thing to do… the surprise should have be reserved for the opposite idea. We were able to construct a context where that blood donation is a surprise, by putting ourselves in the skin of the “economical man”. Since the facts related to it became incomprehensible in that framework (“what? We give more money and people answer giving less?”), we look for other ways how that should make sense including mew “coins” or utilitarian functions or behavior economics or… basically, we are trying to extend our economic explanations to other realities, trying to see the economical men in everyone, everywhere. And we already saw how the “economical men” entails an implicit judgment, separating actions in rational and irrational… imagine if we can extend it to all human actions?

        [Why do I feel I’m talking about the “new soviet men”, or other dystopias alike?]

        Sorry for the extension of this comment, Allison. I tried to conveyed an impression or an intuition about something where I don’t have a sure foot yet, and it is difficult to be more terse or precise. I’m not criticizing in any way the use of the “economic men” in economics, but I have a gnawing felling that it might came to be used badly. These moods happens to me sometimes. A month ago, I assisted to a lecture about a new algorithm to find words in sound sequences in real time. The algorithm was beautiful, but the only thing I could think to ask was if his proponent weren’t afraid he could be used to do police vigilance over us all. It would be unfair if I asked: as I said, it was beautiful and in it’s place, I would have invented it too if I had the chance. Despite my rants, I’ll probably use the “economic man” more times than I want to admit.

        Once again, sorry…

        PS.: I should mention that the first idea that came to my mind when I read you, was about high energy physics and their search for the Holy Grail, the unification of all forces, to explain everything with only one explanation. Somehow, I have the felling that economics is being driven by the same drive behind that search. And curiously, some rebukes to those drives has the same nature: the “complexity” concept for instance.

  • Ken says:

    Though this may be out of the economics context… but if people are performing random acts of kindness (i.e. donating blood, helping out a friend/stranger when needed) and in ended their ‘acts’ are making them feeling good about themselves (or what they did)…which in this case is consider as their ‘return/reward’. Then, are there REAL selfish-less good deeds in the world? If so, what are they?

    • Allison Guerny says:

      This is a tricky question to answer and I feel like there are two different ways I could answer it. The straightforward “economic” answer would be that people always make rational decisions, therefore they are always weighing the costs/benefits of their actions, making there no completely “selfish-less” deeds, as you worded it.

      On the other hand, behavioral economics teaches us that people are irrational. One could argue that any good deed a person does that potentially results in a negative return or reward could be considered a selfless act, as it is actually working against them.

      However, the overall question of “Do truly selfless acts actually exist?” can be argued either way, and then you’re beginning to branch out of economics and get into philosophy. Personally, I think that completely selfless deeds do exist, but they are very rare. People such as Mother Theresa and Oskar Schindler immediately come to my mind, but how can one know for certain they didn’t have underlying feelings of self-interested altruism? Of course, either way it doesn’t make their acts any less inspiring or important, but we can’t know for sure they were acting in a completely selfless manner.

      One example I did manage come up with involves a story I remember hearing on the news a couple years back. A man was waiting for a train and somehow passed out and fell onto the tracks as a train was approaching. In a split-second decision, another man waiting on the platform, who did not know the other guy, jumped onto the tracks and helped position the man in such a way that the passing train did not injure either of them. After the ordeal, the heroic man continued on his way to work, not telling anyone when he got there what had happened. Eventually, the news media caught up to him, but I think that in this case, he acted completely selflessly. He made a split-second decision to put his life in danger just to save someone else, and then didn’t want to make a big deal out of what he did. I think this is one of the truly selfless acts that I’ve heard, and it’s pretty amazing.

  • Jon says:

    “self-interested altruism” is a contradiction in terms. You literally just called it a selfish selfless act, it is completely mental, the two terms do not mix.

    • Allison Guerny says:

      That the term applies in the situation discussed: when people believe they are acting altruistically, but are subconsciously benefiting themselves.

  • Ryan says:

    It might be fun to debate the reasons a “selfish” or “self-less” person might give blood. You must realize that by asking this question the implication as you don’t understand the reasons because you see no reason for doing so.

    I found stumbled onto this site pondering another question, is it more noble to give blood or to give money. In retrospect, I knew the answer which will vary depending on numerous factors. So like the original posters’ question there is no answer than can fit inside a neat box. My question was driven from mild guilt over not having enough money to large amounts to charity and provide basic living consditions for my family.

    I give blood every 8 weeks or so, but I don’t tell anyone. I give blood for these reasons:

    I am O-negative which is a universal doner in that all other blood types can use my blood.

    I live a very conservative lifestyle so I consider my blood to be “healthy” compared to someone who is at higher risk of STDs or might use narcotics. So it should be used to help.

    My wife survived a heart condition because of a “random doner” blood transfusion she recieved at birth. She is the love of my life, we married in highschool and have been married for 25 years She has had no real “threats” in her life save for that incident.

    Those were the initial reasons for me giving blood. I recently found out that local O-neg blood, including mine is primarily used at the local regional children’s hospital which to me is a nice added “perk”. Also every great once in a while I get a coupon for a pint of icecream from Baskin Robbins. However I live in California so due to excess taxes and regulation, it says right on the coupon, if redeemed in California will be worth only 12 ounces (a pint being 16 ounces).

    You could say I do it for a selfish reason, but I don’t think so. Besides, every trip to the red-cross to give blood is stressful to me because I hate the blood donor process and subconsciously fear I will “bleed out”, yet I persevere. I want to close my eyes and wiggle my feet to pass the time, but they have to monitor the patients and don’t allow them to close their eyes in case they pass out.


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