Science of Giving: The role of psychological distance in providing aid after Super Typhoon Haiyan

Humanist Crisis Response
Photo credit: Bullit Marquez (AP)

Brittany Shoots-Reinhard has a PhD in social psychology with a specialization in attitudes and persuasion and judgment and decision making.  She is also the Foundation Beyond Belief director of special projects.

The most powerful storm in recorded history made landfall last week, ravaging a huge swath of the Philippines and killing possibly 10,000 people. Survivors in the Leyte province are largely without food, water, shelter, and other necessities as the Filipino government and the world responds. As humanists, our first instinct is to help, and indeed more than 200 people donated in the first 48 hours of FBB’s Humanist Crisis Response to Super Typhoon Haiyan. But the Philippines is more than 8,000 miles away from the United States on the other side of the world, which can make it a challenge for people in the U.S. to grasp the need and the tragedy. Geographical distance creates psychological distance (e.g., Liberman, Trope, and Stephan, 2007), which reduces motivation (e.g., Cryder, Loewenstein, and Seltman, 2013), and our emotional involvement (e.g., Bratfisch, Ekman, Lundberg, and Kruger, 1971).

But even when the people right in front of us need help, we might not give it. The bystander effect is the paradoxical impact of group size on helping: The more people are around, the less likely help will be provided as everyone assumes someone else will or should help (e.g., Darley and Latané,1968; Latané and Darley, 1970). However, this effect depends upon psychological distance. If the group of people feels connected, by friendship or even by membership, in the same social category (e.g., gender), the bystander effect is reversed, so that helping is more likely as group size increases (e.g., Levine and Crowther, 2008).

Disasters in remote areas of the world are high in psychological distance, whether it’s produced by geographical distance, distance in time, or lack of feelings of similarity or social closeness. And that distance translates to reduced helping relative to disasters nearby. This research suggests that reducing the psychological distance between us and Filipinos will increase donations. Because of the wide variety of variables that influence psychological distance (e.g., Liberman et al., 2007), there are a number of ways to increase aid across far distances.

One strategy is pointing out shared social categories (e.g., parent, sibling, etc.) that increase feelings of similarity. A second method is listening to narratives from those who experienced the tragedy. Narratives take advantage of the identifiable victim effect, as well as evoking emotions and vivid imagery (Green and Brock, 2000). Narratives reduce social distance, geographical distance, and distance in time all at once, because the reader feels like they have been mentally transported into the situation or are the main character. Thus, a “moving” story can be moving both figuratively in that it evokes emotion and literally in that it motivates action.

If you have been moved by stories of the destruction and tragedy in the Philippines, please give what you can to FBB’s Crisis Response. Every dollar you give will be forwarded to the Citizen’s Disaster Response Center, which will be providing emergency response, disaster mitigation, and rehabilitation to Filipinos devastated by Super Typhoon Haiyan.

Bratfisch, O., Ekman, G., Lundberg, U., & Kruger, K. (1971). Subjective temporal distance and emotional inovlvement. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 12(1), 147-160.

Cryder, C. E., Loewenstein, G., & Seltman, H. (2013). Goal gradient in helping behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(6), 1078-1083.

Darley, J., & Latané, B. (1968). Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10, 215–221.

Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2000). The Role of Transportation in the Persuasiveness of Public Narratives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(5), 701-721.

Latané B., & Darley, J. M. (1970). The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn’t he help? New York: Meredith

Levine, M., & Crowther, S. (2008). The responsive bystander. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(6), 1429-1439.

Liberman, N., Trope, Y., & Stephan, E. (2007). Psychological distance. In E. T. Higgins & A. W. Kruglanski (Eds.), Social Psychology: Handbook of basic principles (2nd ed., pp. 353-381). New York: Guilford Press.