When we think about congregational stewardship, we need to take into account what has been labeled the “mere-measurement effect.” When people are asked if they are going to vote in an upcoming election, for example, “they become more likely to act in accordance with their answers” (Thaler and Sunstein, Nudge, page 70). So, if we simply ask people to indicate their giving intentions, we will increase the likelihood that our members will indeed give.
We need a bit finer description at this point. The subjects in the 1987 Greenwald, et al, study that the Nudge authors cite, were anonymous. So they were not likely concerned that someone else would notice if they didn’t follow through on their stated intentions. The mere measurement effect is about psychological priming more than it is about social pressure and expectation.
The study authors refer to our need to erase potential errors in predicting our own behavior. When we say that we will do something and we do not do it, we experience some real tension. In effect, we made a prediction about our future behavior and we got the prediction wrong! So once we make such a prediction, we are far more likely to follow through in order to prove ourselves right about ourselves.
Aren’t we such interesting creatures!
Thaler and Sunstein note that the mere measurement effect works with stated intentions to diet and to exercise, to purchase a new car, and to floss one’s teeth. We can safely surmise that the mere measurement effect will have a positive impact on giving behavior as well. So we come to real importance of “pledge” or “estimate of giving” cards and forms. When people indicate their intention to give, the likelihood that they will give may well increase by twenty-five percent or more (extrapolated from studies of the behaviors mentioned above).
The first priority in encouraging people to indicate their giving intent is to leverage the mere measurement effect. This is not some sort of manipulation or coercion. When we encourage people to indicate their intent in advance, we are helping them to carry out their intentions. If we are concerned about exercising undue pressure on our folks, we may encourage them to complete estimate of giving cards and place them in sealed envelopes. If the research is accurate, the act of completing the intent forms will have a significant impact on giving follow-through, even if no else sees the completed form or card.
If people are encouraged to attach plans to their intentions, they will be even more likely to follow through on those intentions. “The nudge provided by asking people what they intend to do can be accentuated,” Thaler and Sunstein write, “by asking them when and how they plan to do it.” Asking people for specific plans will ratchet up the internal pressure to make accurate self-predictions. And when we plan something, it has almost the same impact on us neurologically as when we actually do it.
In fact, functional magnetic resonance imaging has shown that the same areas of the brain “light up” when we make plans to do something and when we actually do it. This is why it is important that we encourage our givers to be specific in how they will give. Will it be weekly, bi-monthly or monthly? Will it be a fixed dollar amount, a percentage, or a progressive dollar amount? Will it be an electronic contribution or with paper checks or money? Encouraging pre-commitment plans is a way to help people carry out the commitments they want to make. Declared intentions and formulated plans will prime people to be more reliable and faithful givers.
We can extend this dimension of the mere measurement effect to other parts of congregational life. One of the surest ways to increase attendance at a congregational event is to contact people the week before to see if they will be coming. This is a critical element of those stewardship methods which rely on a commitment dinner or other celebration event. Asking for a commitment to attend will increase attendance measurably.
This is true for regular worship attendance as well. I had a colleague who spent the great majority of his working hours in the community connecting with members of the congregation. Many of these contacts were three to five minute conversations at the grocery store or the post office. But these contacts created subtle pre-commitments on the part of the parishioners. When I interviewed some of them, many confessed that the contact with the pastor in the previous week had been a significant factor in their decision to attend worship the following Sunday (I have to wonder if social media contacts can have a similar effect—I am not so sure).
This runs against my personal psychology. I feel like I’m “bothering” people when I seek such pre-commitments. So I have to remind myself repeatedly that I am helping people to keep the commitments they really want to make. Those who don’t want to keep such commitments will likely not be affected by regular connections, invitations, visits and other contacts. And those who are not in the habit of regular attendance and giving—such as people new to the congregation—will need even more attention and invitation since they are forming new habits that have not yet been solidified.