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The Identifiable Victim Effect

 

Explanations > Theories > The Identifiable Victim Effect

Description | Research | Example | So What? | See also | References 

 

Description

We empathize with distinct individuals who are suffering far more than a large number of anonymous people.

This works because of social identification, where we connect and empathize with one person not a faceless mass. And the more that is done to humanize the individual, the stronger the connection is created. Just a face can have a huge effect. Then hearing about normal human struggle and coping only serves to strengthen the bond.

This is an effect used in mediation, where the mediator brings together two warring parties and helps them see one another as fallibly human. Carefully connecting offenders with their victims can also have a powerful healing effect.

Research

Small, Loewenstein, and Slovic (2007) gave subjects $5 each to complete questionnaires. One group had this message:

Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than 3 million children. In Zambia, severe rainfall deficits have resulted in a 42% drop in the maize production from 2000. As a result, an estimated 3 million Zambians face hunger. 4 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.

The other group saw a picture of a small girl and were given a message that said:

Her life would 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 her, provide her with an education, as well as basic medical care and hygiene education.

They then asked each group if they would like to donate some of the five dollars. The first group gave an average of 23% of their $5. This doubled to 46% in the second group.

Influencing factors they used include:

  • A photograph of a single child in need
  • Framing a donation as a 'gift'
  • Comparing the donor as 'caring' and including them in the group of other similar people
  • Naming the girl ('Rokia')
  • Saying how the money will be used, showing the benefit she will gain from the donation

Example

A school seeking donations from parents tells them how their money will help their child.

A journalist interviews one person in a deprived area, asking them for their name and about their daily lives.

So What?

Using it

When you are referring to a large number of people, select one to represent the mass. Show a picture of them, tell their name and the details of their individual situation.

Defending

When you feel sympathy for an individual presented to you, ask why this person was put forward.

See also

Activation Theory, Attitude-Behavior Consistency, Bystander Effect, Commitment

References

Small, Loewenstein and Slovic (2007)

 

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