Identifiable victims: why don’t we care enough about BIG complex stuff…?


Bernard Ross


Maybe like me you were in one sense glad to see the attention the Thai boys trapped in the cave got. And at the same time, like me, distressed that the very many children dying every day in Syria or Yemen get so little attention.

This common challenge frustrates us constantly whether it’s children being killed, adults denied medical care, homeless individuals, or young people unable to experience the pleasure of theatre. Why do odd one-off cases get so much support and major challenges often attract so little attention… and funds?

There is a rational explanation, if a slightly depressing one: the identifiable victim phenomenon.

Wdentifiable victim is a population of one. When we help that person we are helping everyone there is to help- we’ve solves the problem. We have agency. Our System 1 is activated. (System 1 is what Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman calls our irrational emotional decision-making process. System 2 is his name for our slower, deliberative decision making process.)

As a campaigner or fundraiser like me, you might believe that you should appeal to supporters’ heart and head: emotions first to capture donor attention, and then back this up with facts. But the evidence tells us this isn’t how people work. And that fundraising that tries to play to this approach this will perform less well financially.

An identifiable victim, activating System 1, delivers a strong, fast, intuitive and emotional reaction- a desire to help. Adding data doesn’t just activate the deliberate and analytical System 2- it depresses the emotional response.

Surely this can’t be true?- we’ve all learned to nurture head and heart. Afraid so. This very real psychological conflict is elegantly summed up in a set of fundraising experiments conducted by researcher Paul Slovic.[1] Below I share the results and implications of these.

Experiment 1: two groups of typical donors were presented with different propositions – one with an identifiable victim, an individual in need of help though hunger- and the other with a statistical victim – some thousands of individuals impacted on by famine. The group looking at the identifiable victim proposition gave much more.

Experiment 2: here two groups of similar participants read a summary of the identifiable victim research explaining about Systems 1 and 2. They were then asked to contribute financially to either the identifiable victim or the statistical victim proposition.

The research shared had an adverse effect on donations from the identifiable victim group. But had no effect on the statistical victim group. The identifiable victim group, having had the ‘emotional’ nature of what would have been their typical reaction pointed out, seemingly behaved in a much less generous way – perhaps more ‘rationally.’

Why? The behavioural economics model I discuss in my book Change for Good, suggests that when you activate System 1 you shouldn’t try to influence with data too. You risk someone switching to System 2 and reducing their initial strong emotional reaction. However, if you are already activating System 2, it won’t matter if you add more rational information.

Interestingly that this emotional/rational conflict can be triggered through what’s called priming.

Experiment 3: in this variation, two groups of subjects were primed in one off the two modes.

Group 1 was primed in a ‘calculating’ mode. They were given tasks answerering logical arithmetical problems such as:

‘Q. If an object travels at five feet per minute, then by how many feet will it travel in 360 seconds?

  1. _______ feet.’

Group 2 was primed with ‘feelings.’ They were asked questions such as:

‘Q. When you hear the word ‘baby’ what do you feel?

  1. Please use one word to describe your predominant feeling ____________.’

This emotional priming resulted in a much higher average donation than the calculation priming in the context of the identifiable victim ($ 2.34 vs. $ 1.19), but not in the case of the statistical victim ($ 1.45 vs. $ 1.34).

The experiments suggest engaging either System 1 or System 2 helps drive support. However, System 1 leads to a stronger, higher value reaction. Rational thinking before or after activating System 1 invites the analytical System 2 to take over.

Hearts and minds? Sorry. Hearts wins every time.

Bernard Ross is director at the Management Centre


  1. ^ Paul Slovic (ed) The Feeling of Risk: New Perspectives on Risk Perception, Routledge, Ch4, Sympathy and Callousness: The Impact of Deliberative Thought on Donations to Identifiable and Statistical Victims. Small, Lowenstein and Slovic

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