Why don’t people help others more? – part 1

As Peter Singer writes in his book The Life You Can Save: “the world would be a much simpler place if one could bring about social change merely by making a logically consistent moral argument”. Many people might agree that a social change movement is noble yet not want to do anything to promote it, or want to give more money to a charity yet refrain from doing so. Additional moralizing doesn’t seem to do the trick. …So what does?

For a start on the answer, like many things, I turn to psychology. Specifically, the psychology Peter Singer catalogues in his book.

A Single, Identifiable Victim


“This is seven-year old Rokia. Rokia is desperately poor and her life will be changed for the better by your gift.”

One of the most well-known motivations behind helping others is a personal connection, which triggers empathy. When psychologists researching generosity paid participants to join a psychological experiment and then later gave these participants the opportunity to donate to a global poverty fighting organization Save the Children, two different kinds of information were given.

One random group of participants were told “Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than three million children” and some additional information about how the need for donations was very strong, and these donations could help stop the food shortages.

Another random group of participants were instead shown the photo of Rokia, a seven-year-old Malawian girl who is desperately poor. The participants were told that “her life will be changed for the better by your gift”.

Furthermore, a third random group of participants were shown the photo of Rokia, told about who she is and that “her life will be changed for the better”, but ALSO told about the general information about the famine and told the same “food shortages […] are affecting more than three million” — a combination of both the previous groups.

Lastly, a fourth random group was shown the photo of Rokia, informed about her the same as the other groups, and then given information about another child, identified by name, and told that their donation would also affect this child too for the better.

It’s All About the Person

Interestingly, the group who was told ONLY about Rokia gave the most money. The group who was told about both children reported feeling less overall emotion than those who only saw Rokia, and gave less money. The group who was told about both Rokia and the general famine information gave even less than that, followed by the group that only got the general famine information.1, 2 it turns out that information about a single person was the most salient for creating an empathetic response to trigger a willingness to donate.1,2 this continues through additional studies. in another generosity experiment, one group of people was told that a single child needed a lifesaving medical treatment that costs $300k, and was given the opportunity to contribute towards this fund. a second random group of people was told that eight children needed a lifesaving treatment, and all of them would die unless $300k could be provided, and was given an opportunity to contribute. more people opted to donate toward the single child.3, 4

This is the basis for why we’re so willing to chase after lost miners or Baby Jessica no matter the monetary cost, but turn a blind eye to the mass unknown starving in the developing world. Indeed, the person doesn’t even need to be particularly identified, though it does help. In another experiment, people asked by researchers to make a donation to Habitat for Humanity were more likely to do so if they were told that the family “has been selected” rather than that they “will be selected” — even though all other parts of the pitch were the same, and the participants got no information about who the families actually were 5.

The Deliberative and The Affective

Why is this the case? Researcher Paul Slovic thinks that humans have two different processes for deciding what to do. The first is an affective system that responds to emotion, rapidly processing images and stories and generating an intuitive feeling that leads to immediate action. The second is a deliberative system that draws on reasoning, and operates on words, numbers, and abstractions, which is much slower to generate action.6

To follow up, the Rokia experiment was done again, except yet another twist was added — there were two groups, one told only about Rokia exactly as before, and one told only the generic famine information exactly as before. Within each group, half the group took a survey designed to arouse their emotions by asking them things like “When you hear the word ‘baby’ how do you feel?” The other half of both groups was given emotionally neutral questions, like math puzzles.

This time, the Rokia group gave far more, but those in the group who randomly had their emotions aroused gave even more than those who heard about Rokia but had finished math problems. On the other side, those who heard the generic famine information showed no increase in donation regardless of how heightened their emotions were.1

Futility and Making a Difference

Imagine you’re told that there are 3000 refugees at risk in a camp in Rwanda, and you could donate towards aid that would save 1500 of them. Would you do it? And how much would you donate?

Now this time imagine that you can still save 1500 refugees with the same amount of money, but the camp has 10000 refugees. In an experiment where these two scenarios were presented not as a thought experiment but as realities to two separate random groups, the group that heard of only 3000 refugees were more likely to donate, and donated larger amounts.7, 8

Enter another quirk of our giving psychology, right or wrong: futility thinking. We think that if we’re not making a sizable difference, it’s not worth making the difference at all — it will only be a drop in the ocean and the problem will keep raging on.

Am I Responsible?

People are also far less likely to help if they’re with other people. In this experiment, students were invited to participate in a market research survey. However, when the researcher gave the students their questionnaire to fill out, she went into a back room separated from the office only by a curtain. A few minutes later, noises strongly suggested that she had got on a chair to get something from a high shelf, and then fell off it, loudly complaining that she couldn’t feel or move her foot.

With only one student taking the survey, 70% of them stopped what they were doing and offered assistance. However, when there were two students taking the survey, this number dropped down dramatically. Most noticeably, when the group was two students — but one of the students was a stooge who was in on it and would always not respond, the response rate of the non-stooge participant was only 7%.9

This one is known as diffusion of responsibility, better known as the bystander effect — we help more often when we think it is our responsibility to do so, and — again for right or for wrong — we naturally look to others to see if they’re helping before doing so ourselves.


What can we do to encourage people to help more?

  1. Present them with a single, identifiable victim who they can help: people are more motivated to help if they can feel a personal connection with the victim.

  2. Appeal to their emotions: heightened emotional responses encourage altruistic behaviour.

  3. Instill a sense of responsibility to help, and an understanding that doing so is not futile.

In part 2 I’ll talk about how we might encourage others to help more by challenging norms of self-interest, communicating more openly about helping others, and providing some small nudges.

You might also enjoy:

Why don’t charities spend more on fundraising?

Is there such a thing as bad charity?

An interview with Brian Tomasik, one of our members who has spent many years thinking and writing about how to most effectively reduce suffering.


  1. D. A. Small, G. Loewenstein, and P. Slovic. 2007. “Sympathy and Callousness: The Impact of Deliberative Thought on Donations to Identifiable and Statistical Victims”. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 102: p143-53 

  2. Paul Slovic. 2007. “If I Look at the Mass I Will Never Act: Psychic Numbing and Genocide”. Judgment and Decision Making 2(2): p79-95. 

  3. T. Kogut and I. Ritov. 2005.[ “The ‘Identified Victim’ Effect: An Identified Group, or Just a Single Individual?”(http://pluto.mscc.huji.ac.il/~msiritov/KogutRitovIdentified.pdf)]. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 18: p157-67. 

  4. T. Kogut and I. Ritov. 2005. “the singularity of identified victims in separate and joint evaluations”. organizational behavior and human decision processes 97: p106-116. 

  5. D. A. Small and G. Lowenstein. 2003. “Helping the Victim or Helping a Victim: Altruism and Identifiability”. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 26(1): p5-16. 

  6. Singer cites this from Paul Slovic, who in turn cites it from: Seymour Epstein. 1994. “Integration of the Cognitive and the Psychodynamic Unconscious”. American Psychologist 49: p709-24. Slovic refers to the affective system as “experiential” and the deliberative system as “analytic”. This is also related to Daniel Kahneman’s popular book Thinking Fast and Slow

  7. D. Fetherstonhaugh, P. Slovic, S. M. Johnson, and J. Friedrich. 1997. “Insensitivity to the Value of Human Life: A Study of Psychophysical Numbing”. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 14: p283-300. 

  8. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. 1979. “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk.” Econometrica 47: p263-91. 

  9. Bib Lantané and John Darley. 1970. The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help?. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, p58.