Keep the Details and Ditch the Data

October 26, 2015

Frank Taylor, Centscere

In a fascinating psychology study published last year, University of Oregon professor Paul Slovic told volunteers about one small girl suffering from starvation and then asked how much the volunteers were willing to donate to help her.

Then, he presented another volunteer group with the same story of the starving girl. But this time, Slovic also told them about millions of others suffering amid a famine. Volunteers who were told the story about the young girl, gave more than 50% on average compared with those told about the famine.

For fundraisers, Slovic’s study is the most recent – and instructive – piece in an extensive body of research surrounding the “identified victim effect” (IDE).

Nobel prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling introduced the phenomenon in his 1968 book Choice and Consequence.

“Let a six-year old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas,” wrote Schelling, “and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her.”

He continues. “But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths and not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.”

Simply put, humans are more motivated to help a single person in need than a large group of people in need.

But the IDE’s role in boosting generosity can be reduced or eliminated if donors are introduced to other variables.

For instance, if we’re asked to perform a mathematical calculation – regardless of whether that math is relevant to the situation at hand – rationality can override emotion and dominate our decision-making.

In a 2013 study at Carnegie Mellon, participants were instructed to solve algebra problems. Immediately after, researchers told half the participants a detailed story about a single person in need of medical treatment. The other half was told that a huge number of people needed the same treatment. All participants were asked to make a donation.

Across both groups, the average gift was identical. The simple presence of mathematic thinking eliminated the gap in generosity.

Other subtle factors discourage us from giving too.

Israeli psychologists Tehila Kogut and Ilana Ritov described a child’s disabling medical condition to two groups. Group A and Group B heard identical stories with the exception of three details: the child’s name, age and photo were only shown to Group A.

The result? The participants in Group A were willing to donate 60% more on average.

That study was driven by a separate but related body of research showing that, when the personal details of an individual are withheld, we experience diminished feelings of empathy.

The combination of all this suggests that in order to reap the benefits of the identified victim effect, fundraisers should try completely isolate it. For instance, display individual success stories on your website homepage, and place broad statistics on a different page.

Of course, the identified victim effect cannot drive an organization’s entire image. Nonprofits and journalists alike share a common duty to expose inequality and influence political action. Achieving these requires that we present bold, large-scale statistics.

But in places you do employ the IDE, a simple actionable phrase should help to digest all this information: keep the details and ditch the data.