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I created a Vine animation of the growing interest in ALS, and...

You can judge me however you want. I will not pour ice bucket water over myself if I get challenged. 1 I will write about some thoughts around it in this post just after the Vine animation. So first, the fun part:

Growing interest

Earlier in summer, I started to see the video of ordinary people pouring ice water over themselves on Facebook to raise money and awareness to the rare disease called Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis 2. Then, I saw on the news that the batons are passed on to the big celebrities. Days after, my first degree friends on the social network in USA and Japan started to post videos.

Facebook is clearly the vehicle of the campaign that got viral, and the company recently released a blog post that graphically shows the epicenter of the phenomenon (Boston). 3 So, I searched on Google Trends and created this Vine animation that agrees with the Facebook post on the epicenter:

Facebook's visualization traces the geographical tags of the posts on the site, and the animation I created with Google Trends is from the statistics of the search keyword "ALS".

In June, people in the world searched ALS at only 7% of the frequency of that of today (August 21, 2014). It certainly helped to raise the awareness of ALS. I, for the one, did not know about the disease until I saw someone dumping the ice cold water on the head.

ALS Google Trends

This hashtag campaign, #ALSIceBucketChallenge, has raised 41 million dollar as I write this post 4, and it is just accelerating the donation. It is one of the most effective donation campaigns I've heard in terms of the amount raised within a short period of time.

Any concerns?

Now to the not so cool part of my post. I often like to take contrarian positions especially when people are having a big party and feeling good about it. I have no doubt that it did well to raise money and awareness for ALS, but is this campaign so rosy after all? Three things make me be cautious and continue do some study on this topic:

1. Too much money?

Is it going to raise more money than ALS research can effectively use?

Unlike Kickstarters, this campaign does not have a set goal or end date. So, does it follow the typical life-cycle of a viral media like this one? (Guess what this was)

Gangnam Style

What is obviously different about the ice bucket video from the pop music video is that the new videos of the same topic have been generated by 2.4 million people, each tingling the heart of the immediate connections of the social graph. And at least on the Google Trend, we have not seen the peak. I have no idea how far this will go. Someone should ask Dr. Karine Nahon5.

According to a Washington Post article 6, Project ALS already "received nearly 50 times the donations it usually gets this time of year", especially because August is the slow months in the non-profit world". It seems the total donation mount has grown by orders of magnitude since the article was published, and I wonder if it grows too big for the organizations to effectively use the money. I hope my concern is not necessary.

2. Zero sum game or the pie is growing?

My next question is:

Does it cause a significant decrease in turn to other organizations that need donation?

In 2012, individuals in USA donated total of 228.93 billion dollars, according to the estimation by Giving USA 2013 7. This accounts for 72% of all contributions. So, the 41 million dollars Ice Bucket Challenge raised so far is still a tiny fraction of it (less than 0.02%). But in USA, there are more than 1.5 million non-profit organizations are registered 8. While I don't think all of the 1.5 million organizations are donation worthy, but some organizations will see decrease in the amount they can raise unless people start to donate more from their income. (In usual year, people in USA donate are giving a little over 2% of their income.)

This leads to my last question.

3. Moral self-licensing effect?

After participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge, do the people become more helpful, less helpful, or stay the same?

My hope of course is that people will become more helpful by becoming active in finding the good non-profit organizations to give more after participating the Ice Bucket Challenge. In the electric transaction age, money transaction is the easiest part of the donation process. The most important part as donor is to learn about the issues of our neighbors in the global village are facing, and find the hard working good people and organizations that could use our small contributions.

In this context, William MacAskill of Emmanuel College mentioned a phenomenon so-called "moral self-licensing". It is the behaviors in which "Past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral." 9

In his article on Quartz, MacAskill writes 10:

In terms of the conditions for the moral licensing effect to occur, the ice bucket challenge is perfect. The challenge gives you a way to very publicly demonstrate your altruism via a painful task, despite actually accomplishing very little (on average, not including those who don’t donate at all, a $40 gift, or 0.07% of the average American household’s income): it’s geared up to make you feel as good about your actions as possible, rather than to ensure that your actions do as much good as possible.

I certainly have no intension of downgrading the good deeds of all the people in the Ice Bucket Challenge videos 11. I know all my friends who participated are intelligent and good-hearted people. Just one interesting cultural aspect to me is that people are showing off their good deeds and challenging others to do the same. I grew up in Japan, and there is a Japanese idiom fugen-jikkou (不言実行). It means the virtue of making a good cause without talking about it to anyone. Japanese people are very sensitive to the publicity stunts.

So, if we practice fugen-jikkou, we may be free from moral self-licensing, and we may be reinforcing the habit of helping someone for no praise. But such secret altruism never gets a viral effect, and it probably remains much less impactful in raising money or awareness.


  1. It's not that I don't like doing something crazy or cold. I've done equally "cool" stuff in the past: I've rolled into ice cold water of snowy Tahoe Keys. I've done more than 30 sit-ups naked on the snow. And for the donation part, I remain silent as I wrote about moral self-licensing effect in this post. 

  2. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis - National Library of Medicine - PubMed Health 

  3. The Ice Bucket Challenge on Facebook | Facebook Newsroom 

  4. ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ Donations for A.L.S. Research Top $41 Million - NYTimes.com 

  5. Dr. Karine Nahon is an associate professor at the Information School, and she is leading the Virality of Information research group. I came to know her name by reading her paper 12

  6. Stop hating on the ice bucket challenge — it’s raised millions of dollars for charity - The Washington Post 

  7. Charitable Giving in America: Some Facts and Figures 

  8. This number includes public charities, private foundations, and other types of nonprofit organizations, including chambers of commerce, fraternal organizations and civic leagues (source

  9. Merritt, A. C., Effron, D. A., & Monin, B. (2010). Moral self-licensing: When being good frees us to be bad. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4, 344-357. 

  10. The cold, hard truth about the ice bucket challenge – Quartz 

  11. But hey, people in California, you should probably reuse the grey water you are about to dump on yourselves. We are in drought

  12. Nahon Karine, Jeff Hemsley, Shawn Walker and Muzammil Hussain, 2011, Fifteen Minutes of Fame: The Place of Blogs in the Life Cycle of Viral Political Information, Policy & Internet, Vol. 3(1), Article 2. 

Original post: Aug. 21, 2014 | Last updated: Aug. 22, 2014

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