Identifying a single victim can increase willingness to donate by up to 36%

Intervention · Charitable Giving


Emotions play a significant role in decision-making and can influence people’s decision to donate their money to a cause. Many charities and other non-profit organizations struggle to get individuals to contribute to a cause and could therefore benefit from better understanding what factors influence someone’s decision to contribute or not. Previous research had shown that people are more likely to give money to a cause where those that they are helping are identified, as it evokes a more emotional response. The researchers in this study wanted to study the identifiable victim effect and determine whether the impact was the same whether there was a singular victim, or a group of victims. In all three studies the researchers conducted, the researchers found that the identifiable victim effect only occurs for singular victims and did not have a significant effect for a group of victims. 


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Rating: 4/5 (Results help inform incentives for social good and it is easy to implement the intervention)

How identifying details and victim group size impact people’s willingness to contribute to a cause
Victim unidentified, single Mean willingness to contribute money to sick child: 47.17
Victims unidentified, group of eight Mean willingness to contribute money to sick children:  44.11
Victim’s age identified, single Mean willingness to contribute money to sick child: 26.45
Victims’ ages identified, group of eight Mean willingness to contribute money to sick children: 46.97
Victim’s age and name identified, single Mean willingness to contribute money to sick child: 73.19
Victims’ ages and names identified, group of eight Mean willingness to contribute money to sick children: 44.74
Victim’s age, name and picture identified, single Mean willingness to contribute money to sick child: 83.90
Victims’ ages, names, and pictures identified, group of eight. Mean willingness to contribute money to sick children: 43.48

Key Concepts

Identifiable Victim Effect: the increased likelihood that we contribute to causes where we know about specific, identifiable individuals compared to groups of unidentified victims, as a result of greater empathy being evoked. Identifying factors can range from a name, to personal details, to a photo. 

Altruism: the practice of making sacrifices (which can be financial) for other people’s benefit, and our degree of altruism can be impacted by a variety of factors. 

Empathy Altruism Hypothesis: a theory that our willingness to help is motivated by an aroused empathic emotion within us. 

Affect Heuristic: describes our tendency to rely on our emotions when making decisions instead of concrete, factual information, which can make us deviate from rationality. 

Affective Process: when our biological system triggers an action or behavior based on a response to a new stimulus.

Risk as Feelings: our tendency to be overly influenced by feelings such as worry, fear, or anxiety that arouse strong emotions and cause us to make decisions that deviate from the best course of action.

The Problem

The role of emotions

While it is widely accepted today that emotions can disproportionately influence the decisions we make, this hasn’t always been the case. Prior to behavioral science insights, academics hypothesized that people made decisions that were rational and objective. Drawing on insights from the late 1990s and early 2000s, the researchers wanted to explore the affective process and the affect heuristic to see how an emotional response factors in when it comes to donations. 

The identifiable victim effect

The insight that people respond more emotionally to individual lives than statistics was first proposed by economist Thomas Schelling in 1964 and later studied by George Lowenstein and Deborah Small. Lowenstein and Small found that people were more likely to contribute money towards an identified victim than towards a non-identifiable victim. For example, if you were told that your money would go towards helping Sarah, a 12-year old quadriplegic, you would be more likely to donate than if you were told your money would go towards someone who is quadriplegic. 

Putting yourself in their shoes

While Lowenstein and Small had hypothesized that the reason behind the identifiable victim effect was due to aroused emotions, the researchers wanted to demonstrate a relationship between the identifiable victim effect and the empathy altruism hypothesis more directly. To empathize with someone, you must be able to put yourself in their shoes and adopt their perspective. Kogut and Ritov suggested that it is easier to do so when you can identify the victim, as you have more details that you can try and relate to. 

Additionally, the researchers realized that oftentimes, identifiable victims are also discussed in singularities. The way that humans process individuals and groups is different, which could be a factor behind the identifiable victim effect. Kogut and Ritov therefore wanted to see whether the identifiable victim effect would happen for groups as well. 


The researchers conducted three different studies in order to demonstrate links between the different behavioral science concepts, such as the identifiable victim effect, the empathy altruism hypothesis, and the different cognitive process that occurs when we encounter individuals.

Study 1: Willingness to Contribute to the Identified Victim

To confirm the identifiable victim hypothesis, participants were assigned to one of eight conditions. Half of the conditions asked participants to read a story which described a singular sick child, with varying degrees of identifying details (unidentified; age only ; age & name; age, name & picture). The other four conditions asked participants to read a similar story which described a group of sick children, with the same varying degrees of identifying details. They were told the child/children needed a drug to cure their disease, but that since the drug was very expensive, they needed to raise money. Participants were asked whether they were willing to contribute money to save the child/children and how much money they would donate. 

Study 2: Role of empathic emotions

To determine the difference in aroused emotion depending on victims being identified vs unidentified and singular vs group, the second study asked participants to rate their feelings of distress and concern after reading a story about a sick child/children. Participants were once again placed into one of eight conditions, and after disclosing their willingness to contribute, they were asked about their feelings of distress and concern. The first question asked about their feelings of anxiety and distress, to see if the risk as feelings phenomenon would occur, and the second asked about sympathy and compassion. 

Study 3: Show me the money

The first two studies asked participants whether they would, theoretically, contribute money to the cause. However, when the contribution is no longer hypothetical, the researchers wanted to see whether the single identifiable victim effect would still occur. When asked to actually spend money, participants could be influenced by economic rationality. Participants were placed in one of the same eight conditions, read the same story, were given an opportunity to donate money, and were then asked to disclose their responses to the same answers about emotional arousal. 

The 4E Framework

The researchers wanted to investigate how people’s behavior could be influenced by providing more incentives and/or emotions, in the hopes of influencing socially beneficial behavior. The 4E Framework suggests that interventions that seek a desired outcome, such as persuading individuals to donate to good causes, should enable, encourage, engage, and exemplify. In the instance of the identifiable victim effect, donating-behavior is primarily encouraged and engaged through the use of greater detail and positioning the cause effectively. 

Results and Application

Singular versus groups

The studies revealed that identifying factors greatly impacted participants’ willingness to contribute when it came to a story about a singular victim, but that having greater identifying information on a group of victims did not have a significant impact on people’s willingness to contribute. Whereas the difference in willingness to contribute between participants who read the story about a singular, unidentifiable victim and a singular, identifiable victim with name, age, and picture was 36.73, the difference in willingness to contribute to a unidentified group of eight compared to an identified group of eight with names, ages, and pictures was only 0.63, with people actually more willing to contribute to the unidentified group of eight than the identified group of 8. 

Distress over empathy

The second and third studies also revealed that feelings of anxiety and distress motivated individuals’ willingness to contribute, but feelings of empathy had a less significant impact. People felt most distressed for identifiable, singular, victims and were thus most likely to donate in that condition. Overall, more distress was felt for singular victims. In terms of rational theory, it does not make sense that people would be more distressed for one individual in need than a group of individuals, which shows the strong influence emotions have on our decisions. The fact that distress was more correlated to willingness to contribute suggests in part, our willingness to contribute is motivated by our desire to shed anxious feelings, supporting the risk as feelings hypothesis. 

Charities, non-profit organizations, and governments would all promote donating-behavior, as it can help a variety of causes that need society’s attention. Researching how best to promote that behavior -  by ensuring to contextualize the situation in the way that leads to the greatest emotional response to increase willingness to contribute -  

Health Organ donations save lives, but it’s hard to motivate people to be organ donors. The identifiable victim effect could help influence people to be willing to sign up to become organ donors, specifically when stories told to potential donors about previous donors are left unidentifiable, but the stories about patients who received donors and survived are made personal.
Charitable Giving Charities can use the identifiable victim effect and the risk as feelings hypothesis to inform how they communicate their cause and how they ask for donations. 
Climate & Energy Climate change is an existential problem affecting us all, but it’s very difficult to get people to care or change their behavior. This is due, in part, to distance bias: because we feel far away from the consequences of climate change, we are not motivated to act. Climate change activists and organizations can use the identifiable victim effect to try and gain support for the cause and influence people to contribute to the fight against climate change.


  • The results of the studies have positive implications for society as a whole by providing insight into how to get people to be willing to contribute to those in need.
  • The study ensured privacy of participants by not disclosing any identifying details, and did not use stories of real children in need. 
  • Researchers did not consider whether or not it is ethical to share victims’ identity in real life, which could be an obstacle to the effectiveness of the identifiable victim effect.

Does the intervention demonstrably improve the lives of those affected by it?
Helping those in need is a socially positive behavior and can help the overall wellbeing of society. 
Does the intervention respect the privacy (including the privacy of identity) of those it affects?
The privacy of the participants was maintained as no identifiable features were disclosed in the study. Additionally, the study used fictional stories about children in need, thus not sharing details about someone’s real distress.
Does the intervention have a plan to monitor the safety, effectiveness, and validity of the intervention?
The participants’ safety was not affected, as they were simply asked to report their willingness to contribute and their emotional state. Participants who thought they were contributing real money actually were not. 

Does the intervention abide by a reasonable degree of consent?
Participants, being recruited from a university, were aware that they were participating in a study and provided consent to do so. 
Does the intervention respect the ability of those it affects to make their own decisions?
Participants disclosed their willingness to contribute privately and did not have to share with their peers, minimizing the influence of social pressure. 
Does the intervention increase the number of choices available to those it affects?
Insufficient Information/Not Applicable
Participants could contribute as much or as little as they wanted - their options were not limited.

Does the intervention acknowledge the perspectives, interests, and preferences of everyone it affects, including traditionally marginalized groups?
Room for Improvement
The study does not explore whether victims would feel comfortable sharing identifiable factors, which could be an obstacle to the effectiveness of the identifiable victim effect. 
Are the participants diverse?
Insufficient Information/Not Applicable
All participants were from the same university, but no other characteristics were shared.
Does the intervention help ensure a just, equitable distribution of welfare?
The intervention helps promote an equitable distribution of welfare by encouraging individuals to help those in need.

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