Can Insight Breed Callousness? The Impact of Learning about the Identifiable Victim Effect on Sympathy

Authors: Deborah A. Small, University of Pennsylvania; George Loewenstein, Carnegie Mellon University; Paul Slovic, Decision Research

Year: 2005

Focus Area: Persuasion, Prevention, Emotion, Decision Making

Relevance: Frauds may take advantage of sympathy to extract money from their targets – yet another example of the emotional component of decision making. Fraud prevention programs may also use stories of specific victims to elicit sympathy and understanding from people at risk for fraud.

Summary: Large donations of money could be more efficiently used if they were distributed to a number of victims, rather than to a single person. But these “identifiable victims” inspire more generosity in donors than descriptions of statistical victims. This paper asks if individuals can be taught to value life – whether identifiable or statistical – equally.

  • People tend to value proportions more than total numbers, so a tragedy that affects 20 people in a town of 300 is seen as much more serious than a similar event that affects 20 people in a city of two million. The same goes for positive events.
  • People give more generously when they are giving to a victim who has been selected (even if they aren’t told anything more about the victim) rather than a victim who will be chosen in the future.
  • When subjects in this experiment were educated about the influence of identifiability, they gave similar amounts to both statistical and identifiable victims. However, they gave less to identifiable victims, rather than giving more to statistical victims. As a result, total generosity decreased.

Author Abstract: When donating to charitable causes, people do not value lives consistently. Money is often concentrated on a single victim even though more people would be helped if resources were dispersed or spent protecting future victims. We examine the impact of insight about the “identifiable victim effect” on generosity. In a series of field experiments, we show that teaching or priming people to recognize the discrepancy in giving toward identifiable and statistical victims had perverse effects: individuals gave less to identifiable victims but did not increase giving to statistical victims, resulting in an overall reduction in caring and giving. Thus, it appears that, when thinking analytically, people discount sympathy towards identifiable victims but fail to generate sympathy toward statistical victims.

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