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Mother Teresa hit the nail on the head

“When I think of the mass, I will never act. When I think of the one, I will.”

Mother Teresa may have been speaking for herself, but her observation also holds true for donors. And research backs this up.

Paul Slovic, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon and President of the Decision Research Group, has done a lot of work in this area. Several years ago, he wondered why stories like that of Baby Jessica (remember her?) received so much more attention than the crisis in Darfur (with millions of people displaced, and hundreds of thousands killed). His conclusion was that humans are subject to ‘psychic numbing.’

Dr. Slovic conducted several experiments. Essentially, he found that our empathy (and our donations) declines the more ‘victims’ there are. And what is that magic number at which the decline begins? At two. That’s right. As soon as we talk about more than one person being affected, empathy and donations decline.

In one experiment, they divided test subjects into two groups. One group was shown photographs of eight children whose lives would be saved by a critical $300,000 piece of medical. The other group was shown a photograph of one child whose life would be saved by the $300,000 piece of medical equipment. The test subjects were very willing to donate money to help the single child, but were disinclined to give anything to the group of eight children?

I’m guessing that your first reaction is “but that makes little sense!” That’s true. Logically, it makes little sense. But we don’t make giving decisions with the logical side of our brain. We make giving decisions based on emotions (then justify later).

So, next time you’re writing a post for your website, or a thank-you letter to a donor, or an appeal, remember, write the story of one. I dare you to omit every single number or statistic. I bet the response will surprise you.


P.S. Nick Kristof is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times. He summed Dr. Slovic’s research up perfectly in “Save the Darfur Puppy.” He also applies the findings to his own work. In order to engage his readers, he tells stories of individual people he meets on his travels to crisis zones.


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