Why People Give to One, not Millions

I came across this interesting piece on NPR about charitable giving using emotional responses.

There’s a new study which shows that people give more generously to a cause where there’s one recipient, or one source in need of help, rather than millions of people.

It’s come about at an interesting time, when we’re all asking ourselves some serious questions about Ebola.

Psychologist Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon has some answers to this timely question. In his study, a young girl suffering from starvation was shown to volunteers to see whether they were willing to donate to help. Another group was shown the same story, but with the added level that there were also millions of others like her.

Initially, what would your first reaction be? I know with a set-up like this it’s hard to think naturally, but I thought that when faced with such a large issue, people would be more motivated to give money, and may even donate larger sums. I would’ve thought that if the problem was proven to be larger in scale than just one child, we might be more shocked into donating than if it was just a smaller-scale issue.

But the more I thought about it of course, the more this study made sense. We are inundated in our media by images of starving children, animals in danger, people near and far who need our help. It’s little wonder then, that when told that a problem we’re learning about is much larger in scale than one person, we throw our hands up in exasperation, certain that we can’t make a difference.

“What we found was just the opposite,” Slovic says. “People who were shown the statistics along with the information about the little girl gave about half as much money as those who just saw the little girl.”

Slovic initially thought it was just the difference between heart and head. A story about an individual victim affects us emotionally. But a million people in need speaks to our head, not our heart. “As the numbers grow,” he explains, “we sort of lose the emotional connection to the people who are in need.”

In other words, people decline to do what they can do because they feel bad about what they can’t do.

That theory might explain why there hasn’t been an outpouring of donations from Americans to the Ebola epidemic. The current outbreak triggers feelings of hopelessness: there’s no cure, lots of people are sick, and lots of people will die.


1 Comment

  1. Good read. Thanks for posting. It ties in with something I learnt a couple of decades back with regard to public service advertising : personalise the issue so the audience can identify with it, present the solution in simple terms, explain what the audience can do to help solve the problem.


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