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Why we do — or don’t — donate to causes such as the Haitian relief effort

Lots of us are feeling helpless in the face of the horrific news from Haiti. But are we opening our pocketbooks to help? In his blog, The Frontal Cortex, science writer Jonah Lehrer discussed yesterday what he calls “the “cruel paradox of such events, which is that the sheer scale of the suffering seems to inhibit our empathy.” 

He described, using an excerpt from his latest book, How We Decide, the research of University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic, who has examined this paradox:

Slovic’s experiments are simple: he asks people how much they would be willing to donate to various charitable causes. For example, Slovic found that when people were shown a picture of a single starving child named Rokia in Mali, they acted with impressive generosity. After looking at Rokia’s emaciated body and haunting brown eyes, they donated, on average, two dollars and fifty cents to Save the Children. However, when a second group of people were provided with a list of statistics about starvation throughout Africa ⎯ more than three million children in Malawi are malnourished, more than eleven million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance, etc. ⎯ the average donation was fifty percent lower. At first glance, this makes no sense. When we are informed about the true scope of the problem we should give more money, not less. Rokia’s tragic story is just the tip of the iceberg.
According to Slovic, the problem with statistics is that they don’t activate our moral emotions. The depressing numbers leave us cold: our mind can’t comprehend suffering on such a massive scale. This is why we are riveted when one child falls down a well, but turn a blind eye to the millions of people who die every year for lack of clean water. Or why we donate thousands of dollars to help a single African war orphan featured on the cover of a magazine, but ignore widespread genocides in Rwanda or Darfur. As Mother Theresa put it, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

You can read a 2006 study by Slovic on this topic here [PDF]. (Another intriguing article of his, which explores the question of “why, over the past century, good people repeatedly ignored mass murder and genocide” can be found here.)

The 2006 study made the rather discouraging finding that when people are taught to be aware of their bias toward the identifiable victim over the “statistical” one, they don’t increase their donations to the statistical victims, but, instead, cut back on their donations to the individual ones.

“In some ways, this conclusion seems well founded,” writes Slovic and his study’s co-authors. “Faced with almost any disaster of any magnitude, it is almost always possible to think of worse things that have happened or even that are currently happening in the world. The deaths of 9/11, for example, compared with the slaughter in Rwanda, seem almost inconsequential. But the slaughter in Rwanda, in turn, is dwarfed by the problem of AIDS in Africa. Thinking about problems analytically can easily suppress sympathy for smaller-scale disasters without, our research suggests, producing much of an increase in caring for larger-scale disasters.”

Slovic and his co-authors go on to argue, however, that it’s quite possible, in certain situations, for analytical thinking to lead to “greater generosity rather than less.”

Let’s hope that happens now.


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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 01/14/2010 - 12:10 pm.

    This is great research, but I’m afraid it doesn’t surprise me much. We don’t use our brains; we use our hearts. The Renaissance and Age of Reason have been over for centuries.
    We use our hearts when it comes to raising our children, voting, working, volunteering and donating money. Both political parties use it, every single political charity does, most social charities do and most of the successful medical ones.
    What I do find interesting is that how does this research get to the masses? From the mass media, which LONG AGO abandoned reason in its news coverage in favor of emotion. MinnPost is better than most, but still guilty, guilty, guilty.

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