By Kaitlyn Schaeffer

Every year, thousands of people in the United States die waiting for organs. In an effort to inform legislation that might reduce the current organ shortage, researchers at several national universities undertook studies that examined whether certain circumstantial factors might influence people’s tendency to become an organ donor.

Judd Kessler from the University of Pennsylvania and Alvin Roth from Stanford analyzed data collected from California residents following a change that transformed the decision to become an organ donor into a more active choice. For several years, California residents responded to the question of whether to become an organ donor by saying yes or leaving the answer blank; now residents must select either “yes” or “no.” The change was initiated because it was thought that requiring a firm ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would encourage people to really consider the question, instead of checking or leaving blank a box in an effort to get out of the DMV in a timely manner.

Kessler and Roth found that switching to the yes-no form did not increase the number of people who registered as organ donors; in fact, it made people less likely to register. These results were replicated during a similar experiment in Massachusetts.

In order to increase organ donations, some countries are offering an incentive for those who sign up – people who agree to become organ donors get catapulted to the top of the organ waiting list if they ever need one. This approach capitalizes on people’s tendency to pursue self-interested actions.

Other factors that seem to influence people’s decisions to become organ donors relate to the conditions under which the question is asked. In Alaska, residents are asked whether they would like to become donors at the same time that the state sends them their annual dividend check, the money each resident receives from the state’s oil revenue. Alaska has the highest rate of organ donors in the nation. Perhaps the positive mood elicited by the cash induces people to be more generous.

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