Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

What Causes People to Donate After Disasters?

People pay attention to the fatalities following natural disasters.

Technology has made it easy for people to give donations following natural disasters.  When reports of floods, typhoons, hurricanes, and earthquakes makes news, there are websites available for people to give money.  People can even use their phones to donate money by text message. 

What factors lead people to give money to a particular disaster?

In the news reports following a disaster, there are usually estimates of the number of people who were killed as well as the number of individuals who were affected.  The affected individuals have often lost their homes and are in urgent need of food, shelter, sanitation, and medical care.  Much of the money donated following a disaster goes to relief efforts to help the survivors.

A paper by Ioannis Evangelidis and Bram Van den Bergh in the November, 2013 issue of Psychological Science explored the influences on people’s donations following disasters.

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First, they analyzed the actual donations given following natural disasters that occurred from 2000-2011 using publicly accessible databases.  They looked both at the likelihood that money would be given following a particular disaster as well as the amount of money given.  They found that the number of fatalities following the disaster was associated with a higher likelihood that money would be given and that the amount of money given increased with the number of fatalities.  The number of people affected was not a significant predictor of either the likelihood that money would be given or the amount given.  The researchers then obtained a similar pattern in laboratory studies that described disasters using both the number of fatalities and number of affected survivors.

The authors suggest that this pattern of giving is a problem, because money is urgently needed to help survivors.  An earthquake that kills only 100 people, but leaves a million people homeless and without food and water leaves a lot of people who need help, even though the earthquake did not kill many people.  So, the researchers explored two ways to get people to pay more attention to the number of survivors rather than to the number of individuals killed in the disaster.

In one study, they asked half of the participants to compare two disasters directly: one that killed 4,500 people and left 7,500 affected survivors and a second that killed 7,500 and left 4,500 affected survivors.  They had to rank them according to which should get more aid.  Afterward, they read about a single disaster and were asked how much money they thought should be donated.  The number of individuals killed and the number of affected survivors was manipulated so that different people saw different combinations of the number killed and affected.

For those people in the control condition (who did not compare the two disasters), their pattern of donations was similar to that in previous studies.  They suggested higher donations for disasters with a large number of fatalities than for those with a low number of fatalities.  The number of affected survivors did not influence their judgments. 

Those who compared pairs of disasters first showed a different pattern.  They gave higher donations to disasters with a large number of affected survivors, while the number of fatalities did not influence suggested donations.  That is, when people compared two disasters first, it helped them to realize that the number of affected survivors is more important than the number of fatalities when determining the amount of aid needed.

A final study explored the possibility that people are unsure what it means for a survivor to be “affected” by a disaster.  This term is often used, because it covers the many problems people may face after a disaster.  So, some participants read about a disaster in which the survivors were “affected” while others read about a disaster in which the survivors were “homeless.”  Once again, the descriptions varied in the number of people who were killed or affected/homeless. 

In this study, when people were described as “affected” the typical pattern emerged.  The number of fatalities predicted the amount of aid people wanted to see given to the disaster.  When people were described as “homeless,” the number of fatalities had only a small influence on judgments, and the number of survivors had a much larger impact, particularly for disasters in which few people were killed.

Putting this all together, people’s judgments about donations to disasters are often influenced by the number of people killed in the disaster, even though the money is needed to help the survivors.  If people can be induced to think about the importance of the survivors and to recognize why they need aid, then that can shift the pattern of donation.  It will be interesting to see whether aid organizations begin to use these data to change the way they appeal to potential donors.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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