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How to Design an Effective Plea for Donations

Two new studies suggest an image of a single needy child is most effective, so long as you avoid the temptation to go with the most photogenic victims.
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Salvation Army Christmas donations. (Photo: docentjoyce/Flickr)

Salvation Army Christmas donations. (Photo: docentjoyce/Flickr)

You know those pleas for donations you get in the mail—the ones that prominently feature a picture of a hungry, or otherwise endangered, child? Why do you glance at some before throwing them into the recycling, while others inspire you to reach for your checkbook?

Two newly published studies suggest it largely depends on how savvy the respective charities are in pushing certain psychological buttons.

One finds that requests featuring a single child are more effective than those with multiple faces. A second suggests that child had better not be too attractive.

Both these results are somewhat counter-intuitive. Photogenic kids are more likely to catch our eye, after all, and a group of kids implies greater need.

But that doesn't take into account some unconscious psychological drives the respective researchers have identified. They provide evidence that a single victim produces maximum empathy, and that we tend to believe beautiful people can fend for themselves—an unconscious assumption we even apply to minors.

"Why do people help children who are unrelated, live thousands of miles away, and differ in terms of ethnicity, language and religion?" ask University of Alberta researchers Robert Fisher and Yu Ma, authors of the study The Price of Being Beautiful. "We found evidence that participants experienced empathy for the children portrayed in our studies, and that the level of empathy evoked and help offered was (strongly influenced by) the child's need. It appears that participants experienced vicarious distress in response to the children's suffering, and that this was the most significant factor in their helping decision."

So long as their need is not severe, attractive children evoke less empathy and inspire fewer donations than less-attractive ones.

While that speaks well for our species, Fisher and Ma also found a more troubling pattern: So long as their need is not severe, attractive children evoke less empathy and inspire fewer donations than less-attractive ones. They demonstrate this dynamic in four experiments, which they describe in the Journal of Consumer Research.

For one of the experiments, the researchers "designed a fictional website to closely resemble an actual child sponsorship website." Participants (192 adults recruited online) viewed images of five children, but were asked to answer a series of questions about one in particular—either a highly attractive or unattractive girl. (A previous study found this dynamic also occurs with boys.)

"When the child's need was (described as) severe, her attractiveness had no effect on helping responses," the researchers report. "In contrast, attractiveness had a negative effect on the help she was extended when her need was not severe. Despite her young age, participants apparently believed that the attractive child was better able than the less-attractive child to secure the care and nurturance she required from adults because of her social competence."

This appears to be the flip side of the well-known "beautiful is good" stereotype—our tendency to judge attractive people as more intelligent, popular, and well-adjusted than most. While this provides them with obvious advantages later in life, it appears to dampen their appeal as poster children for charitable causes.

But why do we discriminate at all? "Our capacity to feel sympathy for people in need appears limited," notes a research team led by psychologist Daniel Västfjäll.

In the online journal PLoS One, those researchers (who also included University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic) provide evidence that compassion fade" begins to set in in when we're introduced to more than one victim.

One of their experiments featured 168 Swedish undergraduates who were given a set of coins and a donation request. They could give any percentage of their windfall to the charity. The letter describing the need was accompanied a photo and description of a seven-year-old girl, a nine-year-old boy, or both.

Participants gave more money after reading one of the single-child appeals. They also reported those pleas had a greater emotional impact on them, which apparently drove them to be more generous.

These results were duplicated in other experiments conducted in Sweden and Oregon, suggesting that, in the researchers' words, "a single individual is processed differently than a group of individuals." Presented with a visual reminder that many people need help, people have a tendency to emotionally withdraw, dampening our interest in giving.

Like the first group of researchers, Västfjäll and his colleagues note that we respond differently to acute catastrophes such as natural disasters. Earthquakes and floods, they note, often produce "vivid media coverage, including dramatic personal stories" of victims we can easily identify with.

"This differs greatly from the scenarios studied here, involving typically invisible crises of individuals afflicted with chronic conditions of poverty such as hunger, malnutrition and disease."

Under those sadly common circumstances, the most effective appeals seem to be those focused on a single, representative child in need—preferably, one who doesn't have a high-wattage smile.