That’s the compelling conclusion of University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic, as reported in Nicholas Kristof’s recent New York Times Op-Ed column, Would You Let This Girl Drown? (Thanks to Generous Mind Jon Hirst for the tip.)
Kristof favorably reviews Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save, a book I panned in a previous post and with which I still disagree. Nevertheless, Kristoff serves up a point with which I agree emphatically: When nonprofits seek to overwhelm people with shocking statistics related to their cause, the only result is that people become overwhelmed.
There’s growing evidence that jumping up and down about millions of lives at stake can even be counterproductive. A number of studies have found that we are much more willing to donate to one needy person than to several. In one experiment, researchers solicited donations for a $300,000 fund that in one version would save the life of one child, and in another the lives of eight children. People contributed more when the fund would save only one life.
Kristof notes rather resignedly that this is largely a function of our rationality impeding our empathy:
Perhaps this is because, as some research suggests, people give in large part to feel good inside. That works best when you write a check and the problem is solved. If instead you’re reminded of larger problems that you can never solve, the feel-good rewards diminish. For example, in one study, people donate generously to Rokia, a 7-year-old malnourished African girl. But when Rokia’s plight was explained as part of a larger context of hunger in Africa, people were much less willing to help.
Excellent point, though this is the very nut that the Participation/Engagement/Ownership process is intended to cut, and cut gradually. In other words, at the participation stage the champion’s interest is in Rokia, not world hunger. It is through helping Rokia that the champion comes to understand both the larger context of hunger in Africa and the biblical imperative to get personally engaged in that larger context.
Kristof also suggests a change in focus, from whipping out the death stats to assuring the champion that by participating and engaging with the cause they are joining a growing movement of champions:
In the case of fighting poverty, there are billions of other bystanders to erode a personal sense of responsibility. Moreover, humanitarian appeals emphasize the scale of the challenges — 25,000 children will die today! — in ways that are as likely to numb us as to galvanize us.
I also wonder if our unremitting focus on suffering and unmet needs stirs up a cloud of negative feelings that incline people to avert their eyes and hurry by. Maybe we should emphasize the many humanitarian successes, such as the falling child mortality rates since 1990 — which mean that 400 children’s lives are saved every hour, around the clock.
It’s a point Peter Block makes in his masterful Community: The Structure of Belonging: individuals are slow to get involved even with a cause they believe in until they can see others getting involved in the way that they themselves are being asked to get involved.
That’s one of the reasons why Transformational Giving (TG) Principle #7 says:
The relationship between champion and champion is as important as the relationship between champion and organization.