A new report on NPR has an interesting explanationfor why charities are having a hard time raising money for Ebola victims.
People are less inclined to help millions of kids in need than they are to help a single child, according to a study cited by NPR, which was conducted by psychologist Paul Slovic and researchers at the University of Oregon.
The upshot of that study is that people are less inclined to help those in need when they think their help isn’t enough to really make a difference.
“It’s really about the sense of efficacy,” Slovic told NPR. “If our brain … creates an illusion of non-efficacy, people could be demotivated by thinking, ‘Well, this is such a big problem. Is my donation going to be effective in any way?'”
In one study, Slovic asked volunteers how much money they would be willing to donate to help save either a young girl, Rokia, or a young boy, Moussa, from starving to death. He then asked another group the same question, this time mentioning that two children were starving, and that the participants’ donations would only go to either Rokia or Moussa — but not both.
The participants who were made aware of both Rokia and Moussa donated less than the participants who were only given a description of one of the children, with no mention of the other.
“We believe that participants considered the one child not helped in the uncertain conditions and that this reduced affect and donations,” the researchers wrote.
As Slovic discovered, when different sets of feelings compete in the brain, one of these feelings will inevitably diminish the other. Often, the bad feeling prevails, and people decline to do what they can do because they feel bad about what they can’t do. In this case, people were less inclined to help either child when they learned that they could not save both.
This phenomenon, which Slovic and his team at the University of Oregon call “pseudoinefficacy,” has been examined before. Australian philosopher Peter Singer is best known for his view that the relatively affluent are morally obligated to help those in need by donating to legitimate charities.
We may think that a $US5 donation does nothing in the grand scheme of things. But as Singer points out in his 1972 essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” by giving $US5 I can prevent more suffering than I would if I gave nothing — no matter how many people are in need.
“The view that numbers lessen obligation is absurd,” writes Singer. “It is a view that is an ideal excuse for inactivity; unfortunately most of the major evils — poverty, overpopulation, pollution — are problems in which everyone is almost equally involved.”
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