Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

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Tragedy versus statistics

October 17th, 2011

When I’m trying to solve problems, I tend to get analytical and cerebral. I often view emotions as part of the problem and try to excise them from the solution.

It’s not a smart approach, though. Emotions have enormous power over us, and it makes more sense to harness them than to avoid them.

Samantha, 1993-2011I’m particularly conscious of this right now. Regular readers will have noticed that I disappeared last week, missing two scheduled posts. My eldest cat, Samantha, died last Monday and I was more or less mired in sadness all week. It was definitely a reminder of the power of emotions. So, let’s talk about them.

You’ve probably observed that in general, people respond more strongly to a single individual in need than to thousands of people in need. As a quotation frequently misattributed to Joseph Stalin says, “One death is a tragedy, millions of deaths is a statistic.”

Psychology research bears this out. A recent study paid participants to complete a questionnaire then asked them to donate some of their pay to the Save the Children foundation. Half the participants were given factual information about starvation in Africa, while the other half saw a picture of a little girl and read a brief description of her. (Both sets of information came from the Save the Children website.)

The results were as you might expect (if you’re a cynic like me, anyway): the participants who read about the little girl gave nearly twice as much as those who only read facts.

FMSC Distribution Partner - Hope 4 Kids - Ugandan ChildIt gets worse. The same researchers asked a new group of people to go through the same process, but this time there were three groups: one who read about the little girl, one who read factual information, and one who read both. Again, those who read about the little girl gave about twice as much as those who read the statistics – but those who read about the child and the statistics gave no more than those who only read statistics.

It seems as though reading statistics about those who need help actively prevents us from giving that help. What gives?

It turns out that the most likely culprit is a process called “psychic numbing”. When we hear of someone in need and we’re capable of helping, most of us are eager to do so. But as the number of people in need rises, our inclination to help drops.

This appears to happen partly because we’re more sensitive to the proportion of people we can help than to the number. We’d rather save two out of three people (67%) than three out of ten (30%), even though the second option involves saving an extra person. The warm feeling we get from helping is easily overwhelmed by the unpleasant feelings we get when we think of all the people we can’t help.

The psychic numbing effect starts with any number above one: a study described in the above paper found that people asked to donate to save two children gave less than people asked to donate to save either child alone.

So, does this mean we should find a cute child to represent every cause from alopecia to zebra mussels? Not necessarily. But thinking about psychic numbing can help you keep your message at a level that works. Remind people of the good they can do, not of what they can’t. Associate the help they offer with an identifiable, tangible accomplishment. People will campaign to save their local pond fauna before they’ll speak out about the Great Lakes, and you’ll get more volunteers to clean up Main Street than to clean up an entire city.

We all feel good when our help makes a difference, and it’s one way that our irrational, emotional “human-ness” spurs us to do good. If we can give our donors and volunteers that feeling, everybody wins.

4 comments on 'Tragedy versus statistics'

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  1. Rob

    18 Oct 11 at 7:22 am

    While you’re right about most people being numbed by scale, it’s also true that some people see that scale differently and push through into the thick of things. If that were not true, we would not see people running animal shelters, working in soup kitchens and vaccinating children all over the world. Some people see futility and some see a reason to commit.

    Samantha was a lovely, pushy, bossy person with her own ideas about your plans when they diverged from hers. She spent a lot of time on my lap after both she and my legs fell asleep, so the pins and needles feeling will always remind me of her. She was very sweet and I will miss her. Take care of yourself or, in the words of Prince Humperdinck, “I shall be very put out.”


    Carol Reply:

    You’re right about the response to scale and you’re very right about Samantha. I will take care of myself, if only to avoid being Humperdincked. Thanks, Rob.


  2. Dad

    18 Oct 11 at 3:58 pm

    Like Rob I feel there are exceptions to the findings. Kiva uses the technique very effectively, with their little photographs of groups with which we can identify and directly assist.
    Doctors Without Borders, on the other hand manage a favourable donor response while appealing for funds to assist multitude of patients across the globe.


    Carol Reply:

    True, and like most of the psych research I write about, this doesn’t apply everywhere. I think that organizations can shoot themselves in the foot if they choose to focus on statistics at the expense of individuals, but as you’ve pointed out, it doesn’t always have a negative effect. And Kiva and DwB definitely do it right.


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