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Saving Rokia vs saving starving African kids

Which cause below are you more likely to donate to, A or B?

Image by Kat Yukawa

A.  Your help is urgently needed

Africa needs your help urgently. Severe drought has severely impacted the poorest and most helpless:

  • Food shortages in Malawi have caused 3 million children to go hungry.

  • The same number face starvation in Zambia, where severe drought has destroyed most of the crops

  • 4 million Angolans (1/3 of its population) have been forced to move out of their homes.

B.  Your help is urgently needed

Any money that you donate will go to Rokia, a seven-year-old girl who lives in Mali in Africa. Rokia is desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial aid. Your money will be used to feed her, provide basic medical care, and educate her for a better future. 

Two options above, A or B. Which would you donate to?

If you answered B, you are in the vast majority.

But why do so many people pick B? And isn't this illogical?

  • The problem in A is clearly more serious than the problem in B.

  • If we are willing to contribute to solving problem B, wouldn't we be more willing to contribute to solving problem A?

Well, weirder results to come.


  • Participants who read only about Rokia (story B) gave an average of $2.38 per person.

  • Participants who read only about the overall statistics (story A)? $1.14 per person, less than half of those above.  

  • What if participants read both stories? As shared earlier, almost everyone donated to Rokia, but the amount dropped to an average of $1.43 per person.

Woah what is going on here? 

Deborah Small, George Loewenstein, and Paul Slovic, who ran this experiment, share more:


"When donating to charitable causes, people do not value lives consistently. Rokia is what is termed as an 'identifiable victim' where there is a story that focuses on the plight of one person's experience. In contrast, statistics don't activate our moral emotions. The depressing numbers leave us cold: our mind can't comprehend suffering on such a massive scale." In other words, emotions, and not logic, drives actions, in this case, donations. 


We can see examples of "Rokia" in our daily lives. Remember the starving polar bear below? The video of the terrible, starved state it was the most-watched video on National Geographic of all time, reaching an estimated 2.5 billion people around the world. But as the team who captured the bear reflects, the point really isn't about this bear, despite the heart-breaking image of it struggling in its final days. It was the fate of 25,000 polar bears in the wild, and the uncertain future they face with global warming


polar bear.jpg

Above, we have the picture titled "The Struggling Girl" - a Pulitzer Prize winning picture taken by photographer Kevin Carter in 1993, during the height of the Sudan Famine. If there's a picture to break your heart, this would be it. A Sudanese child, so weak from hunger, falls over as she tries to head to a UN food centre. The child's emaciated frame is so close to death that a vulture (vultures are scavengers, i.e. they appear when death is about to or has just happened, to feast) patiently trails behind, awaiting its next meal. The child (it was later confirmed that the child was a he) would miraculously survive, but would eventually die to illness about 10 years later. Kevin Carter himself committed suicide in 1994 - writing in his final note: "The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist".

Many stories (and songs) were written in memory of Carter and of the struggling boy. Again, the emphasis is on the individuals - yet we know that the struggling boy must surely have just been one example of a larger epidemic - that as we sit in the comfort of where we are on our smartphones or laptops, 17 people have died of hunger in the past minute we spent reading this; over 1000 people in the past hour, 25,000 in the last day, and close to 10 million in the past year. 

So what exactly is happening here? Why do our minds seem to favour the one but ignore the many? 


First, there is the innate difference between thinking and feeling, or cognition and emotion. Emotions happen to us  - in the short run we do not have the abilit to control what we feel (although we can control how we choose to respond). For example, many of us might feel some sense of fear even when we see photos of spiders and snakes, when we see people riding on a roller-coaster in front of us - yet none of this is happening to us. We might feel joy or sadness watching a cartoon -  yet the characters do not exist. When we see a picture of a Rokia, and hear her personal story, we automatically feel sympathy. In contrast, procesing a set of figures does not happen automatically. It requires effort, which we might not be willing to invest in. 


Slovic explains: "The problem with statistics is that they don't activate our moral emotions. The depressing numbers leave us cold: our mind can't comprehend suffering on such a massive scale. This is why we are riveted when one child falls down a well, but turn a blind eye to the millions of people who die every year for lack of clean water. Or why we donate thousands of dollars to help a single African war orphan featured on the cover of a magazine, but ignore widespread genocides in Rwanda or Darfur."

When making a decision to donate money toward a cause, “most people probably do not calculate the expected benefit of their donation. Rather, choices are made intuitively, based on spontaneous affective reactions.” 

Ever heard of the term "poster-child"? "Brand Face"? Why not poster-children? Why not brand faces? It turns out that even before proper research and brain scanners, marketers had a very intuitive sense of how the human being thinks and acts.

This brings us to our second point.


When we donate to a single person, we feel that we are able to make an actual difference. In contrast, when there is a large group of people that needs help, we feel that we are simply not able to provide much. Our donation would not make a difference. Donating to a large group of people doesn't seem to make much of a difference.

Mother Theresa once said,  "If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will."
(Mother Theresa's story turns out to be much more complicated than popularly thought. Read more at: Of greatness... and weakness - Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Mandela, and Einstein)


When the 2 appeals are presented concurrently, we observe an additional development: people still chose to donate to Rokia, but donations dropped by 40% compared to if they had just seen Rokia's appeal alone. What's happening? 

Well, when we just look at Rokia's appeal alone, we are emotionally affected, and our emotions cause us to take action and donate. But when we see the 2 appeals side by side, it is harder for us to ignore the cognitive considerations when comparing the 2 appeals: I am emotionally touched by Rokia's appeal, but surely it makes sense for me to donate to the other cause which is much more serious. Some of us would then feel conflicted - how can I justify my decision to donate to Rokia when the other appeal needs it more?

This conflict causes us pain, it is difficult to reconcile our story if we donate just to Rokia's appeal. So some of us might resort to the simplest solution - we decide to just not donate to either cause, to prevent this conflict. There is a term for this - cognitive dissonance. 

Read more about cognitive dissonance and other theories related to this example below:


- Our brain prefers efficiency over accuracy

- We think and live by the stories we create

- Cognitive dissonance

- Our unconscious decisions 

- this explains why we are more likely to donate to the personal story of Rokia Decision-making and analysis. Imagine if we had to think through every single decision in life. Every decision. Should you brush your teeth this morning? But if brushing is meant to clean your teeth, should you brush your teeth after breakfast, when you have just brushed your teeth before? How much shampoo should you use this morning? You have more hair than the average person - so how much more shampoo should you be using? Imagine analysing every single person you meet. On every aspect of personality. You would be so busy thinking about everything you wouldn't be living life. You would go mad. 

So we have evolved to find short-cuts. Heuristics. To help us find answers so that we don't need to figure everything out. 

That people would want to give money to identifiable victims like Rokia rather than unnamed famine victims may not seem all that surprising. But Small and her colleagues, in a series of field experiments, delved deeper into the issue of sympathy and how it relates to charitable giving. The researchers found that if people are presented with a personal case of an identifiable victim along with statistical data about similar victims caught up in a larger pattern of illness, hunger or neglect, overall donations actually decline. In addition, they found that if people are told about the inconsistent levels of sympathy evoked by identifiable and statistical victims — the “identifiable victim effect,” in the words of the researchers — people reduce their giving to identifiable victims but do not increase their giving to statistical victims.


Small says the findings — which hold implications for policymakers, fundraisers for charities and even news organizations that urge donations to victims of tragic events — show that sympathy and aid-giving are often irrational.


“When donating to charitable causes, people do not value lives consistently,” write Small and her co-authors, George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University and Paul Slovic of Decision Research, a non-profit research firm in Eugene, Ore. “Money is often concentrated on a single victim even though more people would be helped if resources were dispersed or spent protecting future victims.”


In many cases, society “would be better off if resources were spread among victims such that each additional dollar is spent where it will do the most good,” according to the paper, titled “Sympathy and Callousness: The Impact of Deliberative Thought on Donations to Identifiable and Statistical Victims.” Yet when making a decision to donate money toward a cause, “most people probably do not calculate the expected benefit of their donation. Rather, choices are made intuitively, based on spontaneous affective reactions.”


The study cites several well-known examples of large sums of money being donated to help identifiable victims. In 1987, a child named Jessica McClure, dubbed “Baby Jessica” by the news media, fell into a well near her home in Texas and received nearly $700,000 in donations from the public. Ali Abbas, a boy who lost both his arms and his parents in the Iraq War in 2003, was the subject of widespread media attention in Europe and received some $550,000 in donations. Even animals generate sympathy: In 2002, more than $48,000 was contributed to save Forgea, a dog stranded on a ship adrift in the Pacific Ocean.


Proportions vs. Absolute Values


Why do identifiable victims elicit such an outpouring of emotion — as well as piles of accompanying cash? In general, psychological research has found that “people pay greater attention and have stronger emotional reactions to vivid rather than pallid information,” says Small, a psychologist by training. Furthermore, the mind responds to proportions, not absolute values. “This is why we gasp when we see a 50%-off sale, regardless of whether the original price is $5 or $500,” she adds. “Similarly, saving 10 lives out of a group of 100 is a high proportion and thus evokes a greater emotional response than saving 10 lives out of one million. An identifiable victim is the extreme, in this sense. When a victim has been identified, she becomes her own frame of reference — there was only one Baby Jessica to save — and thus receives the greatest level of sympathy.”


Small and her co-authors reached their conclusions by conducting a series of four field experiments involving ordinary citizens. The researchers gave each person $5 in one-dollar bills. They were then instructed to read a letter containing a charity request and asked to donate a sum of money, ranging from zero to $5, by placing the money anonymously in an envelope.


Each experiment was designed to encourage “rational” thinking when people made decisions about how much money to donate to identifiable and statistical victims. In one experiment, for example, the subjects were told about the identifiable victim effect before being asked to make a donation. In another experiment, the researchers provided statistics about victims alongside a request for donations to an identifiable victim.


The upshot of the four experiments was that people are most generous when asked to make a donation to an identifiable victim in the absence of “rational” analytic thought. The more statistical information the citizens were given about the general plight of a group of people, the less generous they became. Yet emotion-based thought failed to augment generosity to statistical victims. “It’s easy to override people’s feelings by giving them statistical information,” according to Small. “But it’s not so easy to add feelings where feelings aren’t naturally there to begin with. It’s hard for humans to generate feelings toward statistics.”


One subtle positive finding was that informing ordinary citizens about the identifiable victim effect at least had the result of increasing their consistency towards the two types of victims. Yet the field experiments showed that giving people statistical information had a pernicious effect on overall caring, since people gave less to the identifiable victims but no more to the statistical victims.


“Insight, in this situation, seems to breed callousness,” the researchers write. “In some ways, this conclusion seems well founded. Faced with almost any disaster of any magnitude, it is almost always possible to think of worse things that have happened or even that are currently happening in the world. The deaths of 9/11 [numbering 2,973], for example, compared with the slaughter in Rwanda [estimated at between 500,000 and one million]” seem to have less impact. But the slaughter in Rwanda, in turn, “is dwarfed by the problem of AIDS in Africa. 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.”


Yet the researchers acknowledge that this interpretation may have limitations. It is possible, they say, that deliberate, rational thinking in some cases may lead to more charity. “For example,” they write, “contrary to the difference between statistical and identifiable victims, we often experience little visceral sympathy for needy victims who are from other countries or of a different race or socioeconomic status, but thinking about their plight may lead us to recognize their deservingness. In such instances, we conjecture, interventions that encourage deliberate thinking like those presented in the four studies … might lead to greater generosity rather than less.”


Charities Need a Compelling Message


What implications does Small’s paper hold for charitable organizations? “It’s all about putting together a simple, emotionally compelling message,” Small says. “The best way to do that is in the form of a picture or a story, something that purely engages the emotional system. The mistake that many charities make is trying to appeal both to emotion and to reason. They assume this would be more effective than appealing to only one or the other, but it isn’t.”


Although they feel that charitable donations might be more efficiently distributed among more desperate victims if donors were not so emotional in making decisions to give money, the researchers do not criticize people who wish to help when they feel sympathetic.


“Although the money spent on Baby Jessica and Ali Abbas could save more lives in theory if not concentrated as such, the absence of identifiability effects might reduce the impetus to give at all,” they write. “Thus, although victim identification may distort aid allocation somewhat, its impact generates more aid than any other pitch. Charities certainly recognize this, at least implicitly, when they employ a poster child to raise money for a general cause.”

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