The Science Behind the Trump Campaign’s Recurring Donations

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that starting in March 2020, the Trump campaign had tricked many donors into signing up to make repeated donations, even when the donor intended to donate only once. 

When supporters made donations through the WinRed website, the default setting—a checked box that the user would have to uncheck to opt out—would sign them up to make recurring donations—once a month or (later in the campaign) once a week, at the same dollar amount. The Times told the story of a donor who wanted to make a one-time $500 donation to the campaign but found himself having $500 taken from his account every week. Like many donors, he did not realize he had to actively uncheck a box to avoid recurring donations. The fact that the box in question was well hidden in the fine print did not make it easier. Later, another pre-checked box was added that signed donors up to participate in “money bombs,” days during which additional donations would be automatically withdrawn from their account.

What’s going on here is a type of nudging. For those not familiar with the term, it’s when psychology is used to trick consumers into making choices that the designers of the nudge perceive to be better for the consumers themselves. One example would be when cafeterias and grocery stores are redesigned to make healthy foods more visible, increasing the likelihood that consumers will choose them. With nudging, no choices are actually taken away, nor is the right choice financially subsidized or the wrong choice penalized (as is the case with excise duties), but consumers still become more likely to make the “right” choice. 

As a behavioral economist, I did a lot of my doctoral research on nudging. Unlike most people in my field, I am rather skeptical of nudging, and to me, what the Trump campaign did merely emphasizes how dangerous the use and legitimizing of nudging can be. There are several reasons why nudging is problematic, not least because, as it relies on psychological manipulation, it necessarily happens in the dark, without the consent or even knowledge of the affected consumers. Whatever one may say about more heavy-handed nanny state measures like sin taxes, at least they happen in the open. 

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