If I can’t help everyone, does helping a little even matter?
In my previous article on prosocial behaviour, we looked at how we can present information in a particular way to encourage donations towards refugee camps. We learnt that perceptions of cost are almost more important than the actual amount. So, by breaking down a chunk of money into smaller bundles, it feels like less of a loss to the donor, and they are willing to donate more. It’s an important insight into how people process information and how this impacts their behaviour.
Coming on to the question posed by this article’s title – if I can’t help everyone, does helping a little even matter? It should be an easy ‘yes’, of course! There’s only so much we can do with individual effort, so every little bit adds up.
However, research from Västfjäll et al1 shows that when people are asked to help a little, and given the context of their donation (in this case, the number of people they helped vs. the number of people in need), they actually donate less than they would have if they didn’t know the numbers at all. This is the concept of ‘pseudoinefficacy’.
Pseudoinefficacy and other cognitive biases
Pseudoinefficacy refers to a psychological concept where people are less willing to help, and even donate less, when they are aware of how many people need help at that moment. In another example, a 1997 study (Fetherstonhaugh et al.)2 asked people to send clean water to a refugee camp to save 4,500 lives. It found that people were more likely to help when the camp was small (11k) than when it was large (250k people), even though the amount of lives helped stayed the same.
This is likely tied to ‘psychic numbing’, where people are insensitive to large numbers, even when they are referring to lives at risk3. Psychic numbing therefore prevents us from being able to understand and empathise with largescale calamities. Think of the global reaction and attention paid to the recent Titan submersible tragedy where five lives were lost, in comparison to the Mediterranean Sea shipwreck of over 750 refugees a mere four days earlier, where maybe 100 times as many are feared to have died.
Västfjäll et al1 carried out a series of studies, the results are fascinating.
Study 1: Participants were given 70 SEK (Swedish Krona), about £5, and asked how much they were willing to donate to one of two scenarios, each described by charity letters. The first letter contained a description and picture of a single child, who would receive the donation. The second letter had descriptions and pictures of two children, and the donation going to one of them, without specifying which.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, participants felt more positive about their donation when presented with just one child they could identify as the beneficiary. But what’s more surprising is that they were also willing to donate more money to an identified child, than when they were when showed images of two children where they could only help one.
The study establishes a strong correlation between positive feelings and donation behaviour, i.e. there is a link between feeling good and donating more. In both situations, the same amount of children are helped, however knowing the limitations of your donation clearly creates a negative feeling.
Bearing in mind this result could have been driven by a sense of uncertainty of ‘which child’ the donation goes to; the researchers developed the next study to control for this factor.
Study 2: Now there were three different kinds of charity letters that participants were randomly allocated. The first had a description and picture of a single child, and a request to donate money. The second had pictures and names of seven children, and an indication of which one of them would be helped by their donation. The third letter had pictures and names of seven children, and a description that one child will be helped by their donation, without stating who.
Similar to the previous study, people felt more positive and compassionate when presented with the request for a single child, than when asked to help one child among many. There was no notable difference when they did or didn’t know which child they were helping.
The paper goes on to explore a series of studies that look at varying the proportions of children (helped vs. can’t be helped) and replacing the images of children with neutral or negative images, and how this would impact the participants affective (emotional) response and willingness to help. The results showed that people are more sensitive to the number of children not being helped, and this reduces the ‘warm glow’ they feel when helping.
Therefore the study concluded that, the higher the number of children donators are aware of not being helped, the less positive they feel about donating.
What are the implications?
This research gives us a better understanding of what motivates and demotivates prosocial behaviour. It highlights the way we process information, our affective responses, and how these impact our decisions.
The evidence shows that firstly, regardless of the context of a tragedy, information around its scale has the potential to reduce donations and have people come away with a more negative than positive feeling about donating. And secondly, there is an evident association between donating and feeling good about that donation. These findings might impact future decisions.
This kind of research is invaluable in helping us understand which situations inspire us to help, and which encourage us to look away. Ultimately, it helps us understand the nature of helping behaviour, and what we can do to encourage it – something that is increasingly important for all organisations, not just those in the charitable sector.
To get a better understanding of how your colleagues, customers or communities think, or for help tackling any behavioural science challenge, just drop me a line at Aakanksha.Ramkumar@corporateculture.co.uk
- Västfjäll, D., Slovic, P., & Mayorga, M. (2015). Pseudoinefficacy: negative feelings from children who cannot be helped reduce warm glow for children who can be helped. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 616.
- Fetherstonhaugh, D., Slovic, P., Johnson, S., & Friedrich, J. (1997). Insensitivity to the value of human life: A study of psychophysical numbing. Journal of Risk and uncertainty, 14, 283-300.
- Slovic, P. (2007). “If I look at the mass I will never act”: Psychic numbing and genocide. Judgment and Decision making, 2(2), 79-95.