What motivates us to help others whose lives are endangered? More specifically, what motivates us to help in certain situations, while in others we turn away? Psychologist Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon has some answers that may surprise you. It seems that powerful statistics may actually be detrimental to your fundraising efforts
During the study donors were asked to help a young girl facing death from starvation. They then presented another group with the same story of the starving little girl — but this time, also told them about the millions of others like her dying from starvation.
They found that the money donated to a seven-year-old African child facing starvation decreased dramatically when the donor was made aware that the child was one of millions needing food aid.
Normally, the scope or magnitude of a disaster or crisis would be one of key messages employed to motivate people to donate, to demonstrate need. But, it seems that this approach is counter productive.
“What we found was just the opposite,” Slovic says. “People who were shown the statistics along with the information about the little girl gave about half as much money as those who just saw the little girl.”
Why Your Brain Wants To Help One Child In Need — But Not Millions
Slovic initially thought it was just the difference between heart and head. A story about an individual victim affects us emotionally. But a million people in need speaks to our head, not our heart. “As the numbers grow,” he explains, “we sort of lose the emotional connection to the people who are in need.”
But if the dry statistics aren’t as powerful as the emotional message about the little girl, why do the numbers reduce people’s emotional response to the child in need? Further research suggested there might be another way to explain these surprising results.
Slovic suggests that donors in his study wanted to help the little girl because it would make them feel good, and because they felt they had the power to help this child. But when they included the statistics and showed donors the sheer scale of the problem, donors began to think that there were so many millions starving, that nothing they did would make a difference.
“It’s really about the sense of efficacy,” Slovic says. “If our brain … creates an illusion of non-efficacy, people could be demotivated by thinking, ‘Well, this is such a big problem. Is my donation going to be effective in any way?’”
That creates a challenge for charitable groups. It is necessary to demonstrate the need and the scale of the problem, but at the same time, it could undermine people’s ability to do what they can to help. Its a delicate balance between demonstrating need and showing the opportunity for change.
Applying science to your strategy
Slovic’s research suggests that the way to combat this hopelessness is to give people a sense that their intervention can, in fact, make a difference.
One approach is to break down large scale problems, such as humanitarian disasters, into smaller projects that are manageable and solvable, that do not seem so overwhelming.
This is something that water charities have done successfully. Rather then communicating the huge challenge in accessing water around the world they tend to focus on bringing water to individual villages. By doing this they can demonstrate both the impact on an individual level and show a problem and a solution that can be met with the help of donors.