What inspires you to help? You’re certainly more motivated to contribute to causes which hold some particular significance to you, or which are connected to you in some meaningful way. You are also more likely to take action when you feel a sense of personal responsibility and you are provided with the resources necessary to make a difference. We like to think that, when we put our time, effort, and money towards something that we are doing so rationally. But are we?
Around a year back, the story of a group of young boys trapped in an underwater cave in Thailand received international attention and feverish round-the-clock coverage from global news media for nearly three weeks. Volunteer divers and specialists from around the world were flown in to help with the massive rescue effort. Story rights were bought to make a movie about the incident, with filming for The Cave apparently in production at the time of this post.
We might correctly praise the Thai cave rescue as an admirable example of human empathy, or of good people rising to the occasion to save lives, but it is also a prime example of the identifiable victim effect (IVE), whereby people contribute disproportionately to causes which feature a distinct beneficiary rather than an equal (or even greater) number of anonymous or statistical victims. According to a meta-analytic review by Seyoung Lee and Thomas Hugh Feeley, a major component of the IVE lies in the emotional response invoked, as observers are able to make genuine, sympathetic connections to, say, a child living on the street compared to the statistic that an estimated 2.5 million children in the US are homeless at any given time. Similarly, specificity also tends to imply greater perceived impact and responsibility, as volunteers will only stand to receive tangible outcomes on the individual level, finding a home for one identified child or seeing the twelve boys successfully brought to safety.
There are several mitigating factors which are worth noting at this point. For one, according to Lee and Feeley, the effect is strongest with a single individual, with a precipitous decline that tends to exclude groups from benefiting, making the cave rescue a rare case. They also found that the effect size tends to be conventionally small, though it is still significant enough to be of consideration in practical applications. Additionally, according to analysis by Tehila Kogut, only certain types of victims can be expected to gain from the IVE as a function of perceived responsibility for their condition. For example, individual children living in poverty or victims of uncontrollable circumstances like cancer or natural disasters are prime examples. On the other hand, homeless adults are much less likely to receive assistance under the same isolation, as they are then subject to other social judgments as being potentially to blame for their situation. This can also be seen in our example, where international support was given to the twelve boys, but less so to the assistant coach, who had guided the boys’ trip into the cave and was accused of negligence for placing them at risk despite minimal evidence to support this viewpoint.
Another study by Karen E. Jenni and George Loewenstein from 1997 systematically examined a few suggested contributing elements and concluded that the biggest factor they examined with the above considerations in mind was certainty. In the case of an identified victim or (less frequently) a group, there is an exact number of people at risk, whereas larger statistical risk groups lack this exactness. Jenni and Loewenstein inferred that there is an unconscious heuristic which gives preference to risks characterized by certainty over probabilistic risks. They argued that the effect could better be described for the percentage of potential victims which could be saved if action is taken, where the identified victim(s) form a mental reference group for themselves of which a much larger percentage can be saved. By contrast, significant effects were not found for the vividness of presentation and whether the presentation comes before or after the risk occurs.
So what does this tell us about helping behavior? First, as with many heuristics identified in cognitive psychology, the identified victim effect serves a practical purpose in simplifying the world around us, but leads to ‘irrational’ behavior in the victims we choose to prioritize when offering aid. Second, while the IVE does not occur in a vacuum and research shows that it is one of many factors at play in prosocial decision-making, it is arguably still useful for charity organizations to include identified victims on their donations pages. Lastly, it is important to be cognizant of the ways in which the heuristic is applied to sway public attitudes in the real world. We’ve seen that it can be used to draw attention to important issues, as with the Clery Act, a campus crime disclosure statute named for a college student who was raped and murdered in her residence hall. In other cases though, anecdotes about isolated victims can be used to draw attention away from larger statistical arguments in public policy debates, as with individual workers at risk of losing the jobs in trade deals which will create a greater number of statistical jobs.