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Not All Suffering Prompts Equal Generosity

Newly published research finds people give more generously to relief efforts following natural disasters, effectively penalizing the people caught up in man-made catastrophes.
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The appeals arrive in the mail on a regular basis, often in envelopes featuring images of sad-eyed children. They inform us that a crisis has occurred somewhere in the world, disrupting the lives of a great many people and plead for a generous donation to help alleviate their suffering.

Why are some of these campaigns far more effective than others? Research just published in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggests one reason is the inherent bias of potential donors.

It seems we are significantly more likely to contribute when the crisis in question is the result of a natural disaster (say, a hurricane or earthquake) rather than human activity (such as the civil war in Sudan).

According to a research team led by psychologist Hanna Zagefka of London’s Royal Holloway University, this distinction is “driven by a perception that the victims of natural disasters are to be blamed less for their plight, and that they make more of an effort to help themselves.”

Suffering may be suffering, but we tend to see some victims as more deserving than others.

Zagefka and her colleagues describe four experiments that support this thesis. For the first, 76 volunteers read a fictitious news story about a storm that caused devastating flooding on a tropical island.

Half were told that the island’s dams “were well-built, and gave way because the storm was much stronger than is usual in this part of the world.” The others were informed that “the drams were not well-built, and gave way because government officials had stolen some of the funds designated to building (them more securely).”

Participants were then asked whether they would be willing to give money to help the victims of the disaster. “Willingness to donate was higher in the ‘natural’ than in the ‘humanly caused’ condition,” the researchers report.

Three additional experiments confirmed these results, finding that potential donors are more likely to blame the victims in human-caused disasters and that this blaming resulted in less willingness to give money.

“People perceive victims of humanly caused events in more negative terms, even when there is no information available about the victims’ blameworthiness,” Zagefka and her colleagues conclude. “This amounts to a systemic bias against people suffering from humanly caused disasters.”

The researchers attribute this unfortunate tendency to the Just World Hypothesis, which asserts that humans are strongly inclined to view the world as fundamentally fair, orderly and predictable. To defend this belief, “Potential donors are motivated to blame the victims when given the slightest chance,” they write.

“The suffering of innocents calls into question this just-world belief,” the researchers note. “In order to protect it, people try to construe suffering as just whenever possible.” While this is difficult to do when considering victims of, say, a tsunami, it comes into play when the disaster is caused by war or government corruption — even if the displaced individuals played no role in the problem’s creation.

Zagefka and her colleagues believe this first-of-its-kind study has important implications for international aid organizations. “In designing disaster-relief appeals, it might be useful to try and explicitly address and counteract people’s biases,” they write.

“For example, for humanly caused disasters, appeals could explicitly stress that even though an armed conflict is going on, the victims are impartial civilians who did not trigger the fighting. Similarly, appeals could stress that victims are making an effort to help themselves.

“This last idea might be particularly helpful, given that many appeals in the past have tended to portray victims as lethargic and passive, presumably to underscore their neediness. Our results suggest that such a portrayal might actually be counterproductive.”

Indeed, the perception of people unable or unwilling to help themselves seems to decrease the likelihood of giving, at least when the crisis is viewed as human-caused. Perhaps those photos of helpless-looking children should be replaced with pictures of people building homes or planting crops, accompanied by the simple slogan: “Give them a hand.”