Post No.: 0437
The ‘identifiable victim effect’ is the tendency to respond more strongly towards a single identifiable person at risk than towards a large group of unidentifiable people at risk.
When we choose where to donate our money to, we often choose those charities that deal with problems that might have affected or does currently affect ourselves (e.g. eyesight charities over AIDS charities if one’s child has an eyesight problem); which may suggest that we tend to act in our own interests rather than according to what’s most nationally or globally urgent. (This is one criticism of philanthropy compared to paying one’s fair share of taxes.)
We can also be more willing to donate to a charity that’s about trying to clean up a problem than to one that’s about trying to prevent a problem in the first place (e.g. donating to a disaster relief fund after a disaster occurs rather than to a cancer prevention charity); which may suggest that we tend to act mainly when it’s a teeny bit late.
Then there’s that identifiable victim effect – where we’ll feel more empathy and care more about others suffering when it’s represented by one identifiable individual, particularly one close to home, rather than many vaguely defined people, whether a small handful of people or millions of people, or a faceless cause that’s many miles away from home. Most people will pay more attention to and exhibit more compassion towards one case of child starvation near home over thousands of starving children in a faraway country, or one prominently media-covered child abduction case over hundreds of less publicised child abduction cases even within one’s own country, or one famous celebrity who contracts malaria over thousands of people who die from malaria globally. This can be epitomised by the phrase ‘a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic’.
This isn’t to deny the tragedy of any identifiable victim – but surely we mustn’t ignore the even greater tragedy of the many other similar or worse cases that exist where the victims aren’t identifiable by name. Is it like ‘as long as the animal doesn’t have a name (like a pet) then it’s okay for it to die’?! We’re also more likely to mete out punishment when we’re punishing a specific, identifiable perpetrator too.
It’s because we act more on our emotions than rationally according to the statistics, which can seem abstract and/or overwhelming. We might even donate more to fix a partially-burnt historical building where no one died than to causes where people are constantly dying from something, if we hold a huge emotional connection to that inanimate building! This might be partly because we’re more likely to help with a cause when we’re more sure of the upper cap on solving it, suggesting that people would be more willing to donate to tackle world hunger if only everybody knew what amount of money would solve it once and for all rather than thinking that it might be an endless black hole? However, donors didn’t know exactly how much it’d take to rebuild the Notre Dame in 2019 before they started donating, and some estimates claim that more money was received than necessary to repair it – thus it was more about the emotions than any rational calculations.
Concrete and vivid images and representations are typically more persuasive than abstract statistics. What’s strange is that if you present an identifiable face and state that there are also statistically many others in the same boat, donations will come to only about half as much as just presenting one identifiable face, and about the same as just presenting the statistical number! Statistical information or merely being primed to think in computational terms therefore dampens or even shuts off our emotional response. So thinking in cold, hard numbers is dehumanising and can make us too cold to even care at all (which is a problem in the financial sector).
Therefore if you run a charity, don’t try to present the whole tragic picture – present just a small, specific picture of one person’s (preferably a cute, innocent child’s) suffering and you’ll attract more donations and action. Cuter or prettier victims get more attention, unfairly. This is true with human victims as well as with other animals, hence the general bias in conservation efforts aimed at saving certain endangered cute, furry creatures (e.g. meerkats) over less cute creatures that are possibly more endangered or more important to save for the world (e.g. vultures). Woof.
State that their gift will go to a specific person and describe how it’ll specifically help this person, rather than state that their donation will go to generally ‘help thousands’.
A faceless cause with nameless people in a foreign country doesn’t generate as much affect as one with an identifiable face that’s closer to one’s home. One’s own relatively few casualties of war from one’s own nation will receive much more attention and stir up much more disgust, pain and anger than hundreds of thousands of faceless, nameless and often innocent, non-combatant civilian casualties of war from an opposing nation.
This identifiable victim effect may occur because we feel we can possibly make a difference to one person’s life but not make any worthwhile impact in helping millions of people with our personal donations. And issues closer to home will be perceived to personally affect us more urgently and directly.
But are the children we do not see and do not know the names or faces of not children too? Are multiple children in poverty across the world not worth our help as much as one child in relative wealth in our own relatively wealthy country? Is one child from anywhere worth more than a thousand children from anywhere? Don’t their lives matter as much just because they’re not receiving the same amount of media publicity per child or haven’t had their names or pictures known to us? We rationally should do our best to save as many children’s lives as we can in total, not just the life of the person in front of us or known directly by us; and this is across time and place in the bigger picture too, not just here and now.
It’s indeed tough and unnatural (read Post No.: 0271) when you’re face-to-face with a dying person who’s literally there in your hands, to want to reduce your attention on him/her in order to attend to a group of other people elsewhere who maybe aren’t as immediately close to death but would all be so if you don’t attend to them soon – the process of triage for trained first responders to an emergency scene is designed to maximise the chances of saving the most number of lives possible rather than focusing on particular (either too-far-gone or noisy) individuals.
Surely the bigger heart tries to save as many lives as possible? It’s surely more unethical to disproportionately concentrate too many limited resources on just one person at the expense of multiple other people. It’s surely more unethical to forsake the many for the sake of the few. Hence it’s surely the opposite of callousness to put most of your resources in trying to save the invisible and nameless many over the dying but identifiable few who are right in front of or known by name to us. It’s surely more heroic to prioritise saving the sick many over the sick one or few when resources are not infinite (which they never are).
So who says one life is worth more than another? Look at the opportunity cost and save the many over the few. Although small actions add up to big ones, we should ultimately care more about the bigger picture than any smaller pictures because we can make greater gains at the bigger level (e.g. saving 1% from a big killer could save more lives in total than saving 25% from a small killer; just like saving 1% from the house price could save more money in total than saving 25% from the coffee table in the new lounge – hence when negotiating prices, concentrate on the big ticket items before the small things). As an analogy – although winning the battles normally adds up to winning the war – we ultimately want to win the war more than any single battle.
Without infinite material resources, time, personnel, etc., we cannot save everyone’s lives, so politics is often about making tough choices between bad and worse options in the short-term, but hopefully the best decision for the long-term will be made (preferably for even far beyond a leader’s own tenure to claim clear credit for it). Or we can lockdown for longer to save more lives now, but the economy is important too because it affects many lives in the future.
The rough ‘80/20 rule’ or ‘Pareto principle’ shows that, in the social sciences at least, often ~80% of a problem is caused by only ~20% of things, so we should concentrate on solving these things first. Concentrate your efforts on what’ll bring the largest gains or save the most lives before concentrating on what’ll bring smaller gains. People with the biggest hearts should want to save the most lives possible, not just the ones they notice, or just those who are alive today.
Nonetheless, because humans are humans, we should appeal to emotion rather than cognition when looking for charity. Giving money away to anyone whom we feel would or could never reciprocate the gesture back to us is itself arguably irrational from a purely self-interested financial perspective – at least in the short-term or for us personally – but our emotions can help us to create a better world in this case for the long-term and for the sake of our children and future generations, thus not all irrationality is bad. Albeit we could still be more effective by donating more to causes that are the most statistically worthy over those that are merely tugging our heartstrings.
One backlash if things get too emotionally heavy for too long though is that people will eventually become desensitised to the reports of suffering, meaning that efforts to generate support will start to lose rather than gain traction. When something gets too overwhelming that people don’t think they can ever do something about the situation then many will just mentally ‘switch off’, which can be somewhat understandable because too much stress about things that one cannot seem to change isn’t good for one’s own heart or mind. This isn’t right, but people can even eventually mentally ‘switch off’ with their own personal problems when they start to find them overwhelming, such as their own debt or health problems.
People like to believe they’ll make a difference if they tried to help, so if they think their contribution won’t make a difference because the situation is so insurmountable then they might think it’s pointless to try to help at all. Kindness can also wane if people perceive the world as full of threats and looming scarcity rather than abundance and security. ‘Donor fatigue’ can occur too for those who have previously donated before, although the reasons for this can be individual.
Regardless of whether a story focuses on one identifiable victim or the plain statistics of millions suffering, or if the victims are near or far, or if they’re considered ‘cute’ or ‘pretty’ or not – we must never forget that behind it all are real lives. And sometimes it’s best to think rationally with our heads, and sometimes it’s best to think emotionally with our hearts.
Also overall, it’s action that saves lives, not worries or tears – so we must commit to action rather than just sit, worry and cry about how tragic the world is. So big or small, here or there, if you donate to any legitimate charities then understand that you do make a difference and it’s always better than nothing!