The Psychological Limits Of Caring About The Unfortunate

‘Statistical Numbing’ is what an article in Psychology Today named what happens to us when we hear about the thousands of Africans dying of hunger. We just don’t care that much. But if you see a movie or hear a story about one starving African, you’re likely to care a lot more. The article outlines related research that came up with some interesting results:

  • People will donate twice as much money to save one anonymous child than to save eight
  • They will also donate twice as much money to save one specific starving African child named Rokia, than to save starving children in general
  • Just hearing the statistics of starving kids made people donate 40% less money to Rokia
  • Being asked to donate for two specific children caused donations to fall by 8% when compared to asking for just one specific child

What this shows is that people are probably pragmatic: they know they can’t save eight kids and therefore perceive it as much of a waste of money as trying to save all the kids; but they figure they can make a difference in one starving child’s life. Emotionally, stories can affect us a lot and numbers don’t affect us at all: Oliver Twist is really sad; in fact, it’s much sadder than anything on the news about 60,000 starving Somalians. Statistics also hit our psychological limits on abstract thought: the larger the number — any kind of number, — the harder it is for us to comprehend it. We can imagine one kid very well, but five kids only somewhat well. A dozen kids gets a little abstract, and a hundred kids is hard to even picture. When you get to 60,000, the emotional response that number evokes is probably the same if you’re talking about starving kids or people on unemployment.

So it looks like World Vision got it right by letting one person adopt one specific kid.

From Psychology Today, via Lifehacker

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