The Campaign for Haas

The Price of Generosity

Faculty Fellow Leif Nelson analyzes charitable giving and advocates for scientific integrity

By Amy Marcott

What can doughnuts, reusable shopping bags, and e-books reveal about charitable giving? Plenty if you’re Associate Professor Leif Nelson. A social psychologist with degrees from Stanford and Princeton, Nelson researches pay-what-you-want pricing, an investigation that’s led him to the intersection of charitable giving and profit potential.

Nelson has found that when given the option to pay what they want, consumers will often buy a product but not pay much. But when told that part of the money will go to charity, consumers will buy less often but pay a lot more. The research, first published in Science, won the Robert B. Cialdini Award from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in 2011.

Since joining Haas in 2009, Nelson has received other accolades. He earned tenure in 2010 and a year later became a Barbara and Gerson Bakar Faculty Fellow, an honor that acknowledges early career professors with extraordinary potential. The fellowships are part of a gift from the Bakars in 2007 to also help grow ladder faculty ranks at Haas.

“It’s clear Barbara and Gerson want Haas to be strong and see strength in making sure that faculty who come here are happy and proud to work here and are supported,” Nelson says. In May Nelson added another distinction to his list: a Cheit teaching award.

Nelson has expanded his pay-what-you-want research to investigate numerous variables: for example, does anonymity, a suggested fee, or knowing what others have paid affect purchase rate and price? He also is collaborating with a former student, Jennifer Caleshu, MBA 13, the director of earned revenue and project management at the Bay Area Discovery Museum, a children’s museum in Marin County. Once a month, Nelson runs a donate-what-you-want experiment at the museum’s free admission day, which is supported by a corporate sponsor. The first month, the museum’s cash drawers were too packed to close. Now, the museum’s monthly “free” day has become an important part of its annual giving campaign.

Nelson’s other professional focus has been advocating for transparency in research methods. He and colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania pinpointed a trend for social scientists to report data so it appears they’ve found something when perhaps they haven’t.

“There’s no fraud in that; it’s not fabrication,” Nelson says. “It’s more like selective reporting of only the good stuff.”

Nelson has spent the last few years encouraging journals and institutions to support scientists revealing the totality of their research and helping devise a tool to determine the evidential value of information in a paper. The work was initially polarizing—fellow academics heckled them during conference presentations. Now, a majority in psychology support transparent reporting as high-integrity science. “It became resonant in the field,” Nelson says. “I’m incredibly proud of that work.”

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Leif Nelson.