12  Persistent and systematic incorrect empirical beliefs

Connection to terms/concepts in other work

Caviola, Schubert, and Nemirow (2020) (literature review) considers “Epistemic Obstacles”; this is one of their 2 ‘barriers’ sections, the other being ‘Motivational obstacles’. In that section, they consider some of the ‘misconceptions’ stated below, as well as the ‘overhead myth’ (cf our ‘overhead aversion’) and ‘quantifiability skepticism’, ‘innumeracy’, and ‘ignorance about the most effective charities’

Recapping the discussion from the Conceptual breakdown of ‘barriers’.

There is abundant evidence that people are misinformed (or at least state incorrect beliefs) about the true state of the world, in systematic ways, And that misconceptions persist over time. Some of these misconceptions may prove particularly pernicious to effective charitable giving; others may simply lead to “departure from optimization” in giving choices.

We considered whether to present these as ‘fundamental barriers’, rather than the results of other fundamental biases and norms. For example:

Fundamentally there are systematic reasons why we might not expect ‘incorrect beliefs that are relevant to charitable donation choices’ to be corrected. The incentives and the information-feedback is not clearly present. Charitable giving is a credence good for the donor. Charitable organizations may often raise more money by not correcting these misconceptions, and even by enhancing them.

12.1 Some key misconceptions; evidence these may have an effect

  • Differences in effectiveness across charities (understated; see, e.g., Caviola et al. (2020))

  • Cost of saving a life (understated, i.e., overoptimistic)

  • Relative global affluence (understated); possibly conflicting evidence on this below

Respondents who were randomly assigned to information on the global income distribution supported higher spending on foreign aid and cuts in agricultural trade protections at larger rates. A behavioral measure validates these survey data—donations to charities abroad rise by 55% relative to the control group.

Tied to German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP), a representative longitudinal study of German households. The SOEP contains an innovation sample (SOEP-IS) allowing researchers to implement tailor-made survey experiments. A two-year, face-to-face survey experiment on a representative sample of Germans. We measure how individuals form perceptions of their ranks in the national and global income distributions, and how those perceptions relate to their national and global policy preferences.

Their main result: “We find that Germans systematically underestimate their true place in the world’s income distribution, but that correcting those misperceptions does not affect their support for policies related to global inequality.”

  • Caviola, Schubert, and Nemirow (2020) also suggest ‘ignorance about the most effective charities’

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