Stories spark the mind to give more than statistics

Currently, 50 million people are facing emergency hunger conditions in Africa. Donations are needed to avert disaster. The Canadian government will match your donation, but you must hurry; offer expires July 17.

Did you want to turn the page after reading these sentences? If so, don’t feel bad. It’s your brain’s fault.

That’s the view of University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic, who has researched why people donate.

Through his research, Slovic discovered that people are often overwhelmed when faced with enormous needs. It’s much easier, he found, for people to give to help one person, not many.

Slovic showed a group of people a picture of a little girl suffering from starvation. He then asked how much they were willing to donate to help him. He told another group about the hungry little girl, adding that there were millions more like her.

The result? “People who saw the stats as well as the information about the little girl gave about half the money as those who just saw the little girl,” he said.

On a rational level, this does not make sense. You would think that hearing about millions of hungry people would inspire people to give more. So much needed!

But it doesn’t work that way, Slovic said. Big numbers actually demotivate people. We feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the need, believing that “nothing I can do will make a big difference”, he said.

In fundraising circles, this is known as the “singularity effect,” the idea that people are more willing to help a single identifiable victim than multiple unidentified victims.

It’s not a conscious thing; people do not actively decide not to help. The response occurs at an unconscious level. This is what our brain does automatically when faced with enormous needs.

As Slovic said, “As the numbers go up, we kind of lose the emotional connection to people in need.

Jamil Zaki, professor of psychology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory, has also done research in this area. He specializes in what he calls “compassion collapse”.

When we hear of major disasters, with large numbers of homes destroyed and people killed, injured or left homeless, we may remain “strangely indifferent”, he said.

Again, blame our brains.

“Human empathy has been built, over thousands of generations, to respond to certain triggers – for example, the cry of a child or an anguished face,” Zaki said, adding that “people empathize more naturally with the visible, heartbreaking grief of a person than with descriptions of massive tragedies, and human emotion is limited in scope.

He added: “A single victim produces these signs of distress, which pull on us and inspire our help. Groups give us stats, which fall flat, trigger little, and therefore benefit less from the compassion of others.

This was proven in 2015 with the publication of the body photo of two-year-old Alan Kurdi, the Syrian child who washed up dead on a beach in the Mediterranean Sea.

The war in Syria had been going on for a long time before this terrible image went viral, producing millions of refugees and untold suffering. But when it was published, hearts were stirred, prompting an outpouring of global help.

Compassion fatigue also plays a role; how much suffering can we absorb? The wildfires, the floods, the school shootings, the migrants dying in a truck in the Texas heat, the war in Ukraine going on and on. Sometimes we just want to turn off the news.

Which brings us back to the 50 million people facing starvation in Africa and the role of believers.

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Our brains may be wired not to meet the needs of millions, but all major religions call on their adherents to feed the hungry. It is a divine imperative, a mark of sincere belief.

It seems to work. Despite what our brains might tell us, religiosity is a key factor in determining whether or not people give, and how much – people of faith are giving more and more often than non-religious people.

One reason may be that believers are more likely to hear about the needs of the whole world in people’s sermons, sharings or prayers. Another may be a deep spiritual sense of responsibility towards those who suffer. Or maybe both.

Whatever the reason, believers have the opportunity to step in to help avert an impending hunger crisis in Africa by donating to their favorite aid organization. Locally, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, Mennonite Central Committee and Canadian Lutheran World Relief are accepting all donations, and donations to these three famine relief groups will be matched by the Canadian government. Check out their websites to learn more.

Our brains may be wired not to help millions, but our faith and various scriptures compel us to respond to people who are hungry. Now is the time to do so.

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John Longhurst
faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for the Winnipeg Faith Pages since 2003. He also writes for the Religion News Service in the US and blogs about media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

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