Saturday, May 12, 2007

People Only Want To Help One Person

Science might not have been on Stalin's side when he tried to make half monkey half men soldiers, but it is proving his quote "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic" to be quite accurate.

In one experiment, psychologists asked ordinary citizens to contribute $5 to alleviate hunger abroad. In one version, the money would go to a particular girl, Rokia, a 7-year-old in Mali; in another, to 21 million hungry Africans; in a third, to Rokia — but she was presented as a victim of a larger tapestry of global hunger.

Not surprisingly, people were less likely to give to anonymous millions than to Rokia. But they were also less willing to give in the third scenario, in which Rokia’s suffering was presented as part of a broader pattern.

A follow-up allowed students to donate to Rokia or to a hungry boy named Moussa. Both Rokia and Moussa attracted donations in the same proportions. Then another group was asked to donate to Rokia and Moussa together. But donors felt less good about supporting two children, and contributions dropped off.
Interesting how people will give more to help just one person.
In one experiment, people in one group could donate to a $300,000 fund for medical treatments that would save the life of one child — or, in another group, the lives of eight children. People donated more than twice as much money to help save one child as to help save eight.

Advocates for the poor often note that 30,000 children die daily of the consequences of poverty — presuming that this number will shock people into action. But the opposite is true: the more victims, the less compassion.
This of course drives me completely nuts, as I am a numbers person who feels that we should be trying to help as many people as possible. I like the Arthur Wilde quote "It is the mark of the truly educated man to be deeply moved by statistics". Unfortunately, it appears it isn't a favorite quote for most of the public.
One experiment underscored the limits of rationality. People prepared to donate to the needy were first asked either to talk about babies (to prime the emotions) or to perform math calculations (to prime their rational side). Those who did math donated less.
I guess the moral of the story is if you are trying to get people to give to your cause to help lots of people, you have to keep them thinking emotionally about just one person.

via Times$elect


al fin said...

People focus better on smaller, more local problems. When the local news focuses on a family that has lost everything due to a disaster, in most communities generous donations can be generated.

People think best in narratives that focus on concrete and limited problems. Problems that can be simplified the most are the ones people like to focus on.

Cleverness in framing a situation can sway the most people, regardless of the underlying reality.

Fat Knowledge said...


I think you are probably right.

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