Not the kind of warmth that makes you faint in front of your bosses, the other kind.
Getting people to donate enough blood to keep supplies stable is always an uphill battle.
It’s an act of “high-cost cooperation directed towards a non-reciprocating stranger”, in the words of this big new paper in Nature Human Behaviour, which examines the role of warm glow (a serious scientific variable) in repeat blood donations.
Converting first-timers into repeat donors saves on recruitment efforts and improves safety, so any cheap measure that can bring donors back is worth exploring.
Many years ago in another life, one of the Back Page’s then colleagues would round up a whole office’s worth of quasi-volunteers into a little bus and schlepp us to a local blood donation site in Sydney’s west (a very admirable thing, if a little oblivious to the potential embarassment that certain exclusions, such as the one pertaining to men who have sex with men, might cause).
One of these excursions was on a roasting summer’s day. The pre-donation prick test to check whether the Back Page’s blood was any good came back saying I was borderline anaemic, which earned me a warning but was not enough to stop the donation.
After being relieved of the usual half-litre, I walked back to the office – deadlines wait for no minibus – in the sweltering heat. This mistake resulted in my fainting dead at the feet of my editor-in-chief and chief of staff as I tried to climb the stairs to my office and spending part of the afternoon curled under my desk.
A letter later informed me that, according to a full analysis, my iron was in fact well below the required level: my blood was useless and could I please not come back until I had sorted it out.
The authors of the Nature Behaviour paper would probably say mine was definitely not the kind of warm glow they’re looking for, and that my follow-up letter could have taken a different tone if the service wanted me to part with my red stuff again (even if the iron maintenance failure was entirely my fault).
In a series of experiments using letters to first-time donors, they set out to see whether it was better to deploy warm glow or “impure altruism” – a combination of feeling good about yourself and feeling virtuous with regard to others – in the attempt to entice donors back, since previous work has shown that “pure altruism” is not a great motivator of blood donation.
They additionally predicted that priming donor identity would enhance the effect of warm glow and impure altruism.
Subjects were sent one of the following messages, or no message for controls:
They divided donors into “warm” and “cool” co-operators based on whether they booked a second donation appointment. Booking was positively associated with warm glow.
The “warm-glow-plus-identity” message positively affected return behaviour for both types, but the effect was significantly larger for the “cool co-operators”.
The team determined that warm glow was the “active ingredient” in all such messages and propose that it be consciously incorporated into any public health behaviour messaging, such as that around masking and vaccination.
Using natural disasters and war zones as further examples where the many depend on just a few, they say warm glow “may be critical to ‘sustaining’ high-cost humanitarian aid in a small group of volunteers”.
As for your scribe, I’ve never been back to give blood since that incident 20 years ago – I know when I and my pathetic iron-deficient blood aren’t wanted. While I miss out on the warm glow, I at least have the comfort of knowing I’d leave Dracula unsatisfied.
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