Why are we more likely to offer help to a specific individual than a vague group?

The 

Identifiable Victim Effect

, explained.

What is the Identifiable Victim Effect?

The identifiable victim effect describes the likelihood that we feel greater empathy, and an urge to help, in situations where tragedies are about a specific, identifiable individual, compared to situations where the victims are a larger, vaguer group of people.

Where this bias occurs

Imagine coming across the following two stories when browsing a news website:

Children all deserve basic human needs and a happy healthy life. However, this is not the case for many young children across Africa. Over 26 million children are struggling because of starvation, causing them to be in chronic pain and to be emotionally and physically stunted. Your help is needed to overcome this tragic situation. Make a donation today. 

Children all deserve basic human needs and a happy healthy life. However, this is not the case for Jimmy Kimathi. Jimmy is only 12 years old and struggles because of starvation. He has difficulty concentrating in school and doesn’t look like the rest of his classmates because of stunted growth. Jimmy needs your help to overcome his tragic situation. Make a donation today.

According to the identifiable victim effect, we are more likely to be motivated to help Jimmy, a single individual who is starving, than the 26 million children who we read about in the first story. Although the suffering is greater in the first story, our emotions are triggered by Jimmy’s story, causing us to be more likely to offer help.

Individual effects

The identifiable victim effect demonstrates that our morals are not objective and are often impacted by empathy rather than rationality. Statistics inform us about how many people live in poverty, suffer from mental health, or face violence, but these statistics do little to evoke enough empathy to move us to help. 

It is not logical for us to be more willing to help a singular identifiable victim than willing to help a large group of people, because the larger group’s tragedy is objectively worse than a single person’s tragedy. The bigger the threat to humanity, the more time and resources should be allocated to diminish the threat, but according to the identifiable victim effect, the opposite is true. 

This bias means that we make decisions about who to help and where our money and resources go based on empathy instead of rationality, meaning that our charitable acts are often not the most efficient ways of helping people. 

Systemic effects

Due to the identifiable victim effect, we allow a single tragedy to overshadow the hardships that hundreds or thousands face. This causes us to distribute money, support and resources in ways that are less than optimally effective. Since we are all influenced by the identifiable victim effect, it leads to a disproportionate amount of resources going to one person rather than it being evenly distributed in a way that would help multiple people overcome the difficulties they face. 

Public policy decisions ideally reflect the public’s opinion on certain issues. If our opinions on help are guided by our emotions and the identifiable victim effect, policy decisions will not reflect what is the best scenario for the majority of people but instead will be based on a few select tragedies that impact a small number of people. This means that mass crises will continue to impact our society because steps won’t be taken by the government or other authorities to rectify the situation. The public needs to show concern and support for issues in order for policies to be put in place and with the identifiable victim effect, our concern is misplaced. 

Why it happens

The identifiable victim effect happens because we are not purely rational thinkers. There are various cognitive biases that make us more likely to help specific individuals rather than vague groups that lead to the identifiable victim effect.

One of the causes of the identifiable victim effect is we are deeply influenced by our emotions and they take precedence over rationality and logic. This is known as the affect heuristic

Additionally, because our brains have a limited capacity, it is difficult for us to feel sympathy for everyone. We may become overwhelmed if we have an emotional response to all the tragedies that we hear about, yet we are able to allow ourselves to feel empathy by an individual’s crisis. As a result, we shut ourselves off from large tragedies but allow ourselves to be engaged for tragedies that occur on a smaller scale. 

The identifiable victim effect may also be a result of becoming desensitized when we constantly hear about violent or sad stories. The 24-hour news cycle bombards us with tragic story after tragic story, causing us to be less likely to have an emotional response since we are used to seeing this kind of stimuli.1

Another cause of the identifiable victim effect is the fact that we often hear about individual tragedies after they happen, whereas statistics are based on forecasts and are trying to evoke help before the tragedy occurs.2 We are more likely to feel guilty not helping an individual that is already suffering than the guilt we feel for many individuals that could suffer, causing the identifiable victim effect. Moreover, statistics feel impersonal and cold whereas we can often visualize a particular individual in need.

Why it is important

It is important for us to be aware of the identifiable victim effect because it leads to a disproportionate amount of help going to a single individual while letting hundreds of others suffer from persisting tragedies. 

For example, a video was posted on YouTube of an elderly bus driver in New York City being bullied. Max Sidorov, upon seeing the video, posted the story to the fundraising website Indiegogo in hopes of raising $5,000 to send the bus driver on a trip. Within 48 hours, donations had surpassed $500,000.3

Although helping an individual is still a generous act, it is unlikely that the bus driver needed that much money. On the other hand, annually, there are around 300,000 new cases of breast cancer for women in the U.S alone.4

Only around 550 million dollars is donated to breast cancer research annually.5 550 million may seem like a lot, but when divided by the number of new female cancer patients, that means less than $2,000 per new patient. The bus driver, who was bullied, received 250 times as much money as a female (in theory) receives when diagnosed with a disease that kills around 40,000 women a year in the U.S.4

How to avoid it

It is difficult to avoid the identifiable victim effect because it is a cognitive bias that helps us remain sane by preventing us from getting overwhelmed by all the tragic stories we hear about.6

Instead, by being aware of the identifiable victim effect, charities can market their cause in a manner that is more likely to get them donations and help. Instead of relying on statistics, they may distribute materials that showcase a particular individual in need. Visual media is particularly effective in arousing emotion, and emotional responses are necessary to evoke a desire to help. 

Other strategies that charities can use include showing donors where their money or help is going and the impact that it will have on individuals, as well as asking for people to help a specific family or person rather than a general cause.7

In our personal lives, awareness of the identifiable victim effect allows us to be wary of the way that personal stories manipulate our emotions so that we can ensure that we are giving to the right causes. We should try and make intentional efforts to support systematic challenges that large groups of people are facing, despite the fact that they usually don’t have identifiable victims.

Where it all started

Joseph Stalin, the former Premier of the Soviet Union, is often attributed to have introduced the idea of the identifiable victim effect when he made the statement:

“A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” 8

It is believed that Stalin made this statement with regards to the famine crisis in Ukraine in the 1940’s, and it captures the way in which people react to crises. 

Thomas Schelling, an American economist, formalized Stalin’s conceptualization through his essay “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”.9

In this essay, Schelling notes that we respond very differently to saving the life of specific identifiable victims than saving the life of a people in general. He claimed that a young girl requiring surgery would receive greater donations than a hospital would if they told people that without sales tax, the quality of hospital facilities will deteriorate and lead to preventable deaths. 

One individual at risk seems to conjure up more help than many individuals who will be at risk, called the identifiable victim effect, now a well-known phenomenon in the field of behavioral science.

Example 1 - The number of victims

If we functioned perfectly rationally, the greater the threat to life, the more our efforts to help would increase. However, the identifiable victim effect tells us this is not the case. Empathy, sympathy, guilt and sadness are all affective emotions that are thought to be required for charitable giving, and these emotions seem to decrease instead of increasing the more people are at need.

Daniel Västfjäll, a Swedish professor dedicated to understanding how emotions affect our behavior, tested this theory in a study that examined whether affective emotions decrease even when there is only one more victim that is added to the situation.10 The researchers split student participants in two groups. The first group received either a picture of Rokia, a 7-year-old girl who is suffering from starvation, or Moussa, a 9-year-old boy who is suffering from starvation. A blurb described their situation and informed students that their donations could make a difference. The second group received pictures of both children with the same blurb.

The students from both groups were asked to report how much they would be willing to donate, how they felt about donating (their affective emotions), and how much they thought their donation would make a difference. 

Västfjäll found that the average amount of money participants were willing to give when they saw a single child compared to the average amount that they were willing to give when they saw the two children in need was greater by 11.4 SEK ($1.31 US).10 People felt more positively about their hypothetical donations in the single-victim group and they believed their donation would make a greater difference than those in the double-victim group.

Although $1.31 may not feel like a significant difference, the study demonstrates that even by introducing a second victim that participants still received personal information about, they were already less willing to help than if it was a single victim. From these results follows that the identifiable victim effect would influence donations to an even greater extent when the number of victims continues to increase. 

Example 2 - The allowance to feel

One of the reasons behind the identifiable victim effect may be because we shut ourselves off from mass tragedies because they would take an emotional toll on us.

Daryl Cameron and Keith Payne, professors who research how morality, emotion and behavior all intersect, wanted to examine whether our tendency to disengage from potentially overwhelming crises can be overcome.6 Participants were assigned to either read about one child suffering because of the civil war in Sudan, or eight children suffering because of the civil war in Sudan. Photographs accompanied a blurb about their conditions. 

After reading the descriptions and learning about the children in Sudan, participants were randomly assigned one of two messages. The first message instructed them that when they thought about the children and later reported their feelings towards these children, they should “adopt a detached and unemotional attitude”. Alternatively, the other participants saw a message that instructed them to let themselves experience any emotions that arise throughout the process. 

The researchers found that for the participants that were asked to down-regulate their emotions, there was a big difference in their reported feelings depending on whether they had read about one child or eight children. Those that had only read about one child showed greater compassion than those that had seen eight children. However, this difference was not found for the group that had not been asked to down-regulate their emotions.6

This study suggests that when prompted to allow ourselves to feel emotions, the identifiable victim effect can be reduced. This provides evidence that the identifiable victim effect is a bias we use to protect ourselves. The study also gives organizations a method through which they may be able to acquire donations even when they are seeking help for multiple victims, by asking people to let themselves feel emotion. 

Summary

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.

Related resources

Charity, Parochialism, and the Inefficiencies of Altruism

In this article, our writer William Phillips, whose interest in behavioral science was sparked by his education in Philosophy, examines our habits when it comes to charitable donations. He examines how good advertising, familiarity and news coverage often lead to greater donations because of the identifiable victim effect. Philips questions whether these habits, which are influenced by cognitive biases, are effective. 

Sources

  1. Krahé, B., Möller, I., Huesmann, L. R., Kirwil, L., Felber, J., & Berger, A. (2011). Desensitization to media violence: Links with habitual media violence exposure, aggressive cognitions, and aggressive behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(4), 630-646. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021711
  2. Weinstein, M. C., Shepard, D. S., & Pliskin, J. S. (1980). The economic value of changing mortality probabilities: A decision-theoretic approach. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 94(2), 373-396. https://doi.org/10.2307/1884546
  3. CBS News. (2012, September 11). Bullied bus monitor receives $700k check. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/bullied-bus-monitor-receives-700k-check/
  4. U.S. breast cancer statistics. (2020, January 27). Breastcancer.org. Retrieved August 5, 2020, from https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/understand_bc/statistics
  5. 2018 NCI budget fact book – Research funding. (2018, December 20). National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-nci/budget/fact-book/data/research-funding
  6. Cameron, C. D., & Payne, B. K. (2011). Escaping affect: How motivated emotion regulation creates insensitivity to mass suffering. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(1), 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021643
  7. Chung, E. (2016, June 24). The identifiable victim effect: When one is more than many. Classy. https://www.classy.org/blog/the-identifiable-victim-effect-when-one-is-more-than-many/
  8. Lyons, L. (1947, January 30). Loose-Leaf Notebook. The Washington Post, p. 9.
  9. Colman, A. M. (2006). Thomas C. Schelling’s psychological decision theory: Introduction to a special issue. Journal of Economic Psychology, 27(5), 603-608. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joep.2006.06.002
  10. Västfjäll, D., Slovic, P., Mayorga, M., & Peters, E. (2014). Compassion fade: Affect and charity are greatest for a single child in need. PLoS ONE, 9(6). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0100115