Why We Have More Sympathy for Baby Jessica Than for Darfur

Behavioral Psychology
Focusing on the struggles of an individual appeals to our emotions and makes us care. As the numbers of people suffering get bigger, our cognition, calculation, and thoughtfulness are activated—and we care less.
  • Transcript


Question: Why do we have more sympathy for individual people suffering than for large masses of people suffering?

Dan Ariely: This is you can think of as the Baby Jessica, when Baby Jessica fell to the well and she really suffered and her parents must have been incredibly miserable, she got more CNN coverage than Rwanda and Darfur, right?  And the question is, why does this happen and why do people care so much?  And it turns out, there’s research on what’s called the "identifiable victim effect."  And the question is, if you have how many lives are at stake and how much do we care, you would expect it as more lives are at stake, we would care more, maybe in a linear relationship.  Or maybe we would care more in the beginning and there’ll be kind of a diminishing return, like we wouldn’t care if it’s 100 or 1,000, but we care a lot at the bottom range.

But it turns out, the function is different.  We care a lot about individual life and care less and less as the pie... as the number of people become bigger.  And this goes to kind of an observation of both Stalin and Mother Theresa said... you know, Stalin said, "One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic."  And Mother Theresa said in the same spirit, "If I look at the masses, I will never act; if I look at the one, I will."  And both of them basically portrayed this idea that what happened when we kind of think about recruiting ourselves to act against something, it’s not about our mind thinking, it’s not about the cold calculated thought about what’s worthwhile and what’s the cost/benefit analysis; it’s about our heart.  It’s about our emotions.

And the question is, what can activate emotion?  It turns out that an individual case can get us to care versus a big set of cases just becomes statistics.  So this beautiful result by Deb Small and George Lowenstein and Paul Slovic that basically says, “Here is one girl in Africa who is hungry, how much money would you give her?”  And then to other people they say, "Here’s the problem of hunger in Africa, there are 3 million kids in Sudan and there are 5 million kids here, and this, how much money would you give?"  And people give half as much to Africa than they give to the single girl, Rokia.  It actually gets worse.  Because, it said, if people give more when it’s emotional than when its statistical, what happens when we give both information.  We say, “Hey, here’s one girl, Rokia, see how sad she is and how much money could help her.  By the way, there’s 5 million more like her,” what would happen?  It goes down.

It turns out that every time you activate cognition, calculation, thoughtfulness, you turn off the emotion—people care less and give much less.  And of course, this explains a little bit, the kind of imbalance between what we give to and what we don’t give to.  So think about how difficult it is to get money for prevention of diseases; prevention of malaria or prevention of diarrhea, or de-worming kids in the world.  You know, lots of kids have worms.  It turns out that those things are incredibly important, incredibly useful, you can actually get people to be much, much healthier, but it’s not motivating, right?  De-worming a kid, or, you know, a million kids in India, just doesn’t make you feel warm and fuzzy. Or preventing kids in the future from getting malaria is again, not that exciting. But if you can help one person, specific, concrete, get something, we all get very excited from it.  So there is a real imbalance between what really matters and what we care about and what we give our time and money to.

How can charitable groups use this information to their advantage?

Dan Ariely: If you run a not-for-profit, of course, you want to build on this irrationalities because you care about your not-for-profit, and I think the example here is of course the American Cancer Society.  They have done a really good job.  First of all, the word "cancer" is great in a money-recruiting way, right?  It’s an awful disease.  The second thing is the word "survivor" is really good.  And the third thing they do is they create an incredible fear from cancer.  I mean, the truth is, we all have lots of cancer and we all usually get over it, I mean, some, some people of course, don’t, but in our lifetime, we all have cancerous cells and in most cases it will be just part of the deal of living, but they create this really negative association that now everybody who had cancer, even if it was not malignant and will not cause them to die or it was so slow it will take 50 years to develop... they call everybody a cancer survivor.  And because of that, everybody who knows them and everybody who cares about them starts caring about cancer.

Now, you know, it’s kind of interesting because they have basically have mastered this issue, right?  They’ve mastered making it central, focal... created very strong fear about cancer.  And caring about it and they basically get a lot of money.  And if you look at them as a not-for-profit, they’re an incredibly wealthy not-for-profit.  In fact, the other not-for-profits feel that the Cancer Society is getting so much money, that people just don’t give to other causes because they give so much to that cause and now there’s all kinds of movements to basically stop their status as a not-for-profit because they’re so wealthy and they spend so much money on salaries and so on.  But in a sense of understanding human psychology, they’re the top, basically.

Recorded on June 1, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman