We're more generous to a suffering individual than the needy masses

Within days of TV presenter Richard Hammond's high speed car crash last September, over £100,000 had been donated by well-wishers to the air ambulance service that took him to hospital. It was just another example of the disproportionate generosity we tend to show towards individuals relative to the scale of suffering occurring elsewhere in the world.

It's not just about celebrity status. For example, during the Iraq war, £275,000 was quickly raised to aid the plight of the wounded Iraqi boy Ali Abbas, who captivated the news media in Europe at the time.

This bias is good for the individuals in question but from a pragmatic perspective it represents an inefficient distribution of charitable funds given the spread of need across the globe. Deborah Small and colleagues wondered what would happen if people were educated about this bias.

After completing an irrelevant questionnaire, hundreds of participants were invited to contribute their participation fee to Save the Children. As expected, control participants donated more if the charity was promoted using a story about the plight of a 7-year-old girl than if it was promoted using statistics about the millions facing starvation in Zambia. This discrepancy disappeared when participants were educated about the bias (either explicitly, by describing the bias to them, or implicitly by presenting suffering statistics alongside a single case-study). Crucially, however, the discrepancy was removed because participants subsequently gave less after reading about a single case-study, rather than because they gave more after reading about widespread suffering.

“Thinking about problems analytically can easily suppress sympathy for smaller-scale disasters without, our research suggests, producing much of an increase in caring for larger-scale disasters”, the researchers said. "Insight, in this situation, seems to breed callousness".

Small, D.A., Loewenstein, G. & Slovic, P. (2007). Sympathy and callousness: The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victims. Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 102, 143-153.
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