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We care more about one person than a hundred

Updated: Mar 7, 2020

Giving money to charity makes us feel good. When we decide to give money, the same part of our brain is active which responds when we receive money or food ourselves, or when we punish cheats. Individuals whose brain is most active in this area also choose to give more than those who seem to get a smaller reward. But the process which makes giving money to charity pleasant also leads to some irrational choices.

Researchers in Israel told undergraduates about either one sick child or eight sick children. The students learnt that the drug needed to cure the children was expensive and they would die unless $300,000 was raised quickly (i.e. in one case the $300,000 would save one child, in the other it would save eight children). Some of the students were given the names, ages and pictures of the child(ren) whilst others weren't.

The undergraduates then had the chance to donate money to the medical centre. The researchers found two interesting effects. When the students were given the names and pictures of the dying child they were far more likely to contribute. However, it seemed to be much harder to empathise with a group of children than one child. The students were twice as willing to contribute to the identified single child as to the group of eight even though they would be doing more good in the latter case.

But if people give more to less useful causes because their emotional attachment is greater, can charities educate people to be more rational in their giving? A US group tried this, asking participants to donate to either an individual girl at risk of starvation (volunteers saw a picture of Rokia) or to a generic cause, giving the volunteers details of a drought in Africa and describing the millions needing help.

The participants gave twice as much to Rokia. So the researchers repeated the experiment, but before asking the volunteers for donations they told them about research showing that people react more strongly to identifiable victims than statistics.

Unfortunately, people didn't then donate twice as much to the millions of starving Africans; they donated half as much to Rokia

Most large charities are aware of these effects, and target their campaigns at our emotions rather than bombarding our reason with statistics. Some offer us the chance to sponsor or `adopt' a poor child and show us photos of her, tell us the sports she likes to play, and print copies of drawings she's made, before telling us how hungry the little girl is, and how much she wants to go to school.

Even animal charities use similar techniques. In 2009, the RSPCA received over \pounds 100m in voluntary income, and spent over £20m on marketing. One of their mail shots has a kitten's face on the envelope and the question `can YOU hear my cry for help?' In the enclosed letter, we learn that Stevie was just eight weeks old when his heartless owner threw him out. `Cold and trembling, with a broken leg, his tiny mewing cries could barely be heard.'

If our charitable choices were reasoned, we'd want more information on the cost per rabbit re-homed so that we could compare it to the number of meals we could send to Ethiopians for the same amount. Some organisations do use such figures in their adverts, and it seems laudable, but any charity swapping their emotional appeal for statistical details doesn't understand human nature very well. And I'd prefer to donate to charities that understand humans.

Dr Chris Paley is the author of Unthink, which has been published in six languages.

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