What it is
The identifiable victim effect describes our likelihood to be more willing to help single, identifiable victims because we feel a greater emotional response to their stories, than the likelihood that we will be willing to help a large number of people who are suffering.
Why it happens
The identifiable victim effect happens because emotions can have very powerful influences on our actions. Often, mass tragedies are presented to us in the form of statistics, and statistics are unlikely to trigger empathy, making us less likely to offer help. Alternatively, when we read about an individual’s tragedy, and get to see a picture of that victim, we are influenced by our emotions to help. Emotions are thought to be necessary for charitable donations, so the identifiable victim effect makes us more likely to help specific individuals.
The identifiable victim effect may also occur because we protect ourselves from feeling emotion that we believe will be overwhelming. It may be too overwhelming for us to feel guilty and sympathy for millions of people, but we are able to take on the emotional responsibility for caring about one individual.
Example 1 – The identifiable victim effect is even seen when comparing 1 to 2 victims
Although we may believe that the identifiable victim effect only occurs when we compare people’s response to one victim to their response to hundreds or thousands of victims, we are also less likely to donate when we hear a story about two victims than a story about one victim. Even when we can see photographs and a description of two victims, we feel less of an emotional response than when we read about just one victim and we are less likely to donate as a result.
Example 2 – Emotion regulation can impact the identifiable victim effect
One cause of the identifiable victim effect is thought to be because we want to protect ourselves from feeling emotions that are overwhelming. The empathy and guilt we feel for multiple victims may be too much for us to handle, so we cut ourselves off from feeling it instead.
To counter this effect, organizations can remind or instruct people not to shy away from their emotions and allow themselves to feel these difficult emotions. When we are asked not to regulate our emotions, we are not as affected by the identifiable victim effect.
How to avoid it
Avoiding the desire to regulate our emotions is one way to counter the identifiable victim effect. However, desensitization often occurs as a defense mechanism and may be hard to overcome. Instead, charities and organizations can take the identifiable victim effect into consideration when asking for donations, and try and spotlight individual victims, use personalized stories and show people the impact they will have, in order to get more donations.