Why We Have More Sympathy for Baby Jessica Than for Darfur

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

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

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

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

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

How can charitable groups use this information to their \r\nadvantage?

Dan Ariely: If you run a not-for-profit, of course, you \r\nwant to build on this irrationalities because you care about your \r\nnot-for-profit, and I think the example here is of course the American \r\nCancer Society.  They have done a really good job.  First of all, the \r\nword "cancer" is great in a money-recruiting way, right?  It’s an awful \r\ndisease.  The second thing is the word "survivor" is really good.  And \r\nthe third thing they do is they create an incredible fear from cancer.  I\r\n mean, the truth is, we all have lots of cancer and we all usually get \r\nover it, I mean, some, some people of course, don’t, but in our \r\nlifetime, we all have cancerous cells and in most cases it will be just \r\npart of the deal of living, but they create this really negative \r\nassociation that now everybody who had cancer, even if it was not \r\nmalignant and will not cause them to die or it was so slow it will take \r\n50 years to develop... they call everybody a cancer survivor.  And \r\nbecause of that, everybody who knows them and everybody who cares about \r\nthem starts caring about cancer.

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

Recorded on June 1, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

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.

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