Dumbing down advocacy for the greater good

My heroes

Three is a crowd

In Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed in the NYTimes last week he considered factors that may have contributed to lack of international action on humanitarian issues. He uses Peter Singer’s drowning child argument to set up this contradiction: surely members of the G8 would be willing to jump into a pond to save the child – why aren’t they willing to save those larger, more distant groups of people? Krisfof gives some examples from (what I guess must be) the psych literature:

A number of studies have found that we are much more willing to donate to one needy person than to several. In one experiment, researchers solicited donations for a $300,000 fund that in one version would save the life of one child, and in another the lives of eight children. People contributed more when the fund would save only one life. For example, in one study, people donate generously to Rokia, a 7-year-old malnourished African girl. But when Rokia’s plight was explained as part of a larger context of hunger in Africa, people were much less willing to help.

Oh dear.

Professor Singer notes that in one experiment, students filled out a market research study while a young woman went behind a curtain and then appeared to climb on a chair to get something — and fell down. She then moaned and cried out that her ankle was injured. When the person filling out the form was alone, he or she helped 70 percent of the time.

But when another person was in the room, also filling out the survey and not responding, then only 7 percent tried to help. In the case of fighting poverty, there are billions of other bystanders to erode a personal sense of responsibility. Moreover, humanitarian appeals emphasize the scale of the challenges — 25,000 children will die today! — in ways that are as likely to numb us as to galvanize us.

Kristof doesn’t exactly recommend a full solution – but I find his train of thought a little troubling. Explaining the context of hunger makes people less likely to donate? Even if these experimental results aggregate up – is this a wise trade-off? Surely dumbing down the debate to better capture the public’s attention (and purse strings) carries with it the opportunity cost of poorly-targeted advocacy – recall as Mia Farrow’s short-lived hunger strike, during which she urged world leaders to support both the indictment of al-Bashir and the return of aid workers (two outcomes that weren’t exactly complementary). The headless heart reigns when we don’t give people a complete information set – even if that means we make a few people yawn.

I’ve always admired Kristof’s dedication to humanitarian issues, if not always with his conclusions. What would be the ideal advocacy in his opinion, given the above constraints? Michael Bear at the Humanitarian Relief blog has a solution: the return of Sally Struthers