Science of Giving: Why do we care more about one victim than thousands?


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.

Rather than charities simply explaining their cause, they often emphasize telling the stories of the people they help and showing their pictures. Charities have learned that people are more likely to give money when they can see who they’re helping and find out more about them. In fact, research shows that people are more motivated to give money to save a single victim than to potentially save thousands. This inconsistency in the way that we value lives is called the identifiable victim effect.

AAll rights reserved by Kasese Humanist Primary Schoollthough it seems cruel that people would be less willing to save thousands of lives than to save a single life, there are a number of reasons why we would do so. The first is that an individual person is more vivid than a boring statistic about number of lives being saved. The person’s picture and story are more likely to engage our emotions and influence our decisions and behavior (Nisbett & Ross, 1980).

Additionally, when giving to a specific person, we can be assured that person will be saved. For example, if we give money to sponsor a single student to attend school (e.g., through a program run by our past beneficiary Kasese Humanist Primary School), we will have helped 100% of the children we set out to send to school. If instead we gave the same amount of money to a charity that helps send hundreds of children to school, our donation only helped a fraction of the needy children, which is less psychologically satisfying than helping one particular child (Jenni & Loewenstein, 1997).
Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, teaching people about the identifiable victim effect reduces giving toward identifiable victims, but does not increase giving to statistical victims, thus making analytical thinking incompatible with charitable giving (Small, Loewenstein, & Slovic, 2007). Because charity often involves sympathy and empathy, reducing reliance on emotions would be expected to reduce charity as well.

LinneaThe Leukemia & Lymphoma Society makes great use of the identifiable victim effect by choosing “Honored Patients” each year and sharing their stories on their website, like Linnea’s (pictured here), and the FBB LLS team has encouraged each of our FBB Light the Night walkers to choose their own Honored Heroes.

So what should we do in our own fundraising efforts? We should follow the example set by successful charities and choose a “poster child” to put a face to our charity (and only one; see Kogut & Ritov, 2005). We can use the empathy people feel for identifiable victims to benefit statistical victims as well.


Jenni, K. E., & Loewenstein, G. (1997). Explaining the “Identifiable Victim Effect.” Journal of Risk & Uncertainty, 14(3), 235-257.

Kogut, T., , & Ritov, I. (2005). The “identified victim” effect: an identified group, or just a single individual? Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 18(3), 157 – 167. doi:10.1002/bdm.492

Nisbett, Richard, and Lee Ross (1980). Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgment. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Small, D. A., Loewenstein, G., & Slovic, P. (2007). Sympathy and callousness: The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victims. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 102(2), 143-153. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2006.01.005