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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 07-Oct-08

 


Tuesday 07-October-08

Contributions -- one person at a time

There's a notion that 'more is more persuasive', and that if you make a grand appeal about millions dying in Africa then it is more persuasive than talking about thousands and certainly about one. There is also a reverse view, that millions becomes impersonal and that focusing on the individual is more effective.

In 2004 researchers at Carnegie Mellon University did an interesting experiment to explore this. They did a survey (which was irrelevant to the experiment) and gave the respondents five dollars (in dollar notes). They also gave them a 'Save the Children' charity envelope which invited them to give some of their earnings to the charity. The only difference was in the text they presented.

Version one (the 'millions' version) text went like this:

  • Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than 3 million children.
  • In Zambia, severe rainfall deficits have resulted in a 42 percent drop in maize production from 2000. As a result, an estimated 3 million Zambians face hunger.
  • Four million Angolans -- one third of the population -- have been forced to flee their homes.
  • More than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance.

Version two (the 'individual' version went like this:

  • Any money that you donate will go to Rokia, a seven year old girl from Mali, Africa. Rokia is desperately poor and faces the threat of severe hunger or even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia's family and other members of the community to help feed and educate her and provide basic medical care and hygiene education.

What would you have done, had you been faced with either of these two versions? On average, version one elicited $1.14 contribution, whilst people who read version two gave an average of $2.38. So what happened here?

There are problems with the first version. First of all, we don't deal well with big numbers. Can you imagine a million people all standing together? Difficult, huh? How about 100? Much easier. One is of course a doddle. So when someone talks about millions of people, we are impressed, but it doesn't mean that much to us. More is less. When you snow people with statistics, after a while they switch off. Secondly, you can't relate to a number, though you can relate to a person. Numbers, even about people, just aren't as human as an individual. Another problem is that if you were to contribute a few dollars towards millions of people, you'd probably feel that it was a drop in an ocean and would make no real difference. In the same way, people do not vote because they don't think it will make a difference.

An interesting extension of this was in a second study, where the researchers primed their subject, getting some into an analytical frame of mind by asking them logical and mathematical questions, whilst others were primed into an emotional frame of mind by asking them to describe how they felt when hearing the word 'baby'. Both groups were then given the 'Rokia' script. Interestingly, those who had been thinking logically now gave an average of $1.26, whilst those whose emotions had been invoked gave $2.34.

This shows the criticality of emotion (vs. logic) in decisions. Literally, when we are emotionally aroused, our analytic brain functions are chemically suppressed. Just as in the fight-or-flight reaction or in stress, in the battle between feelings and rationality, our emotional triggers almost always win.

The implications ripple into such areas as advertising and business storytelling. Use stories about individuals, not just products or strategies. Show how one person can make a difference for another one person. Give people names. Make it human. And start by prodding people into an emotional state.

 

Smalla, D.A., Loewenstein, G. and 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


Your comments


As Stalin said... "When you kill one, it is a tragedy. When you kill ten million. It is a statistic".

-- Edward N


I hope you have read Daniel Pink's book A Whole New Mind.
The "story" takes on a whole new meaning.

-- Judith A. R.


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