6/14/98, Updated 11/5/01

Why Donate Blood? *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

Currently only about 5% of the potential blood donors give blood. Many people do not give blood, because they are afraid of needles or think it will be painful. Others have heard of a few people who have become faint or dizzy after donating blood. Some don’t want to take the time and effort required to give blood.

With the current increased demand for blood, we need more donors – especially people who are committed to donating blood. In addition, we need to rely on volunteer donors rather than those who are paid. Most of us know that AIDS and other diseases can be transmitted through the blood. This risk of transmission is lower when volunteers are used, especially when they are repeat donors. (By the way, you cannot get any of these diseases – including AIDS – by donating blood!)

Even with no financial rewards, some people risk the costs listed above to donate blood. Why do they repeatedly donate blood? To find their motivation, a psychological study was completed in 1984. Here are some of the motives that were uncovered.

• External social motives. This applies to most committed blood donors. They have been pressured to give by friends, coworkers, or to give a good organizational showing for a blood drive. They often come in with someone else. They want to avoid being criticized by others, but also they respond to rewards like cookies or a tee shirt.

• Community responsibility. These donors, as good citizens, want to demonstrate responsibility by living up to societal standards.

• Personal moral obligation. Rather than meeting community standards, donors continue to give blood to live up to their individual standards of morality.

• Addiction to the experience. Believe it or not, for these people, donating blood is like skydiving. They seem to want to master their fear of doing the act. After realizing that it is "not so terrible", their fear is replaced by a positive feeling. For sky divers, the more often they dive, the more their anxiety fades, and their sense of elation and competence increases. Likewise, for blood donors, their worries vanish, and they feel the "warm glow" of having helped others. By repeating the experience, both transform their initial anxiety into a positive – even addicting – experience.

According to this study, there are several interrelated phases to becoming a regular blood donor. First, donors need to view their "costs" as relatively minor. In other words, they find out it is not as painful as they thought, it doesn’t take very long, and there are minimal or no aftereffects. Next, they start viewing donating in terms of internal motives rather than social pressures. Third, they intend to donate again. Finally, donating becomes a habit.

Personally, I am one of these committed blood donors. Since I have kept a record, I have donated over 100 pints of blood. My experience seems to fit the data. When I first started in college over 40 years ago, I was paid for my donations. However, when I moved to Yuma 30 years ago, they did not purchase blood.

"Since I can’t afford to donate much money,
giving blood is my way of helping others,
which makes me feel good about myself."

I view myself as relatively altruistic. Since I cannot afford to donate large amounts of money to charities, it makes me feel good to donate something that others desperately need to survive. Science still has not created an adequate substitute for whole blood. Besides, I know my body will regenerate the plasma (the fluid portion of the blood) in less than 24 hours. However, it will take 4-6 weeks to completely regenerate the various blood cells. (This is the reason why they enforce an 8-week gap between donations.)

For me, the worst part is when they prick your finger to get a few drops to see if you have enough iron in your blood. After that, inserting the needle to get the blood is usually painless. Unfortunately, since some people avoid red meat (because of its fat and cholesterol content), they are being rejected as donors, because they also have too little iron in their blood.

Gradually, as I saw how easy it was – and how I could be helpful to others with relatively little effort – I became addicted. I feel more than a little proud to wear the tag that says, "I gave", that they give me afterward. However, to be truthful, the cookies and brownies I eat are an added incentive.

If you want to make the effort to help others, now is the time. If you do not know when or where to contribute blood in your area, call 1-800-GIVE-LIFE.

* Adapted from Diane Papalia and Sally Wendkos Olds’ Psychology, McGraw-Hill, 1988, pages 612-613.

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