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The Identifiable Victim Effect: Why you should reconsider donating to the child on GoFundMe

What kinds of charities do you give to? What spurs you to give to them? Is it images on GoFundMe of your friend’s neighbor’s child suffering from cancer, or the story of an exploited woman finding refuge and employment through a non-profit? Do you get a feeling of satisfaction when you type in your annual donations as deductibles to send to the IRS?

These are questions that can be answered and understood through the Identifiable Victim Effect, which says that people are more willing to give aid when they can identify a specific victim who will benefit from their donation. That is, when you or I hear a suffering child’s story or see their picture, we are more likely to whip out our wallets.

Why is this? It isn’t a rational or effective strategy for doing the most good for the most people. People donated $700,000 upon hearing the publicized plight of Baby Jessica who fell into a well in 1987, an amount of money that was probably not necessary to save Baby Jessica and perhaps should have been shared with other necessary causes, such as the thousands of nameless babies who are abandoned and dying around the world (Small, Loewenstein, & Slovic, 2007). The Identifiable Victim Effect does not rely on logic, so its explanation certainly isn’t going to be found in the sensible decisions of kind citizens.

What a cute child! His story of suffering from cancer raised more than twice the amount of the original goal. Source: GoFundMe.

One answer can be found in cognitive psychology. When we make careful, rational decisions, we are engaging in a controlled process—which is any process that requires slow, conscious effort. Without an identifiable victim, this is the type of process we engage in before we donate to charity: Is this charity going to make good use of my money? How will this fit into my budget? Is there anything in it for me? But, since a controlled process takes effort, most of us are more likely to skim past the charity’s ad if a single victim’s story doesn’t catch our eye.

When we see that picture of a victim who is clearly suffering and might die without our help, our heartstrings are pulled, and our emotions take over. This is because the affective system—that is, the system of our emotions—is an automatic process. Automatic processes are easy tasks that we are unaware of doing, such as succumbing to our emotions. They override controlled processes before we know what’s happening, and all rational and controlled thought goes out the window.

Though this explains how hearing the story of a victim allows us to skip the deliberate decision-making process, it doesn’t explain exactly why we give more attention and aid to an individual victim. According to cognitive psychology, our attention is particularly drawn to things that are salient to us, and especially to faces. So if a photo of a victim’s face draws our attention, what keeps our attention after that? It could be the vividness of the story, giving us a concrete picture of suffering instead of an abstract statistic. It could be that a victim’s suffering or death is certain, while estimated statistical deaths are only probable. It could be the result of preferring to help someone who has already suffered a traumatic event instead of to prevent suffering for a larger group of people.

But these theories do not fully account for the identifiable victim effect. In fact, the biggest reason behind this is a statistical one: the proportion of people in a group who will certainly suffer without your help (Jenni & Loewenstein, 1997). With an identifiable victim, that proportion is 1/1—or 100%. With a larger statistic, that group is much larger, and your help makes a much smaller dent. If you decide to donate money to ending world hunger, you’re very far from solving the problem—but if your goal is to end one child’s hunger, you can sponsor a child and you’ve solved 100% of the problem.

Wouldn’t you like to make sure this child is fed, healthy, and able to attend school? Source: Compassion International.

And when you’ve sponsored that child and saved them from certain despair, doesn’t it feel good? That’s part of the explanation behind this effect, too. You aren’t donating out of an entirely pure heart—in fact, you may be donating because it makes you feel good about yourself, especially if you’ve seen a photo of the child you’re saving. Photographs of victims cause brain activation in areas associated with positive emotion, and show that we give more because of good feelings instead of negative ones like guilt (Genevsky et al., 2013).

If you’re a charitable person and it makes you feel good, don’t let this newfound knowledge stop you from donating to those in need. Those who know about the Identifiable Victim Effect are not only less likely to give to individual victims, but they don’t give any more to charities and causes that could actually use the money (Small et al., 2007). Warning people of the effect by means of priming—a cognitive psychology tool that means giving information in advance and seeing how people use that information later—does not increase rational decision-making or controlled processes in helping others. Now that I’ve told you about the effect, you may stop making donations at all, even if there are still thousands of unidentifiable victims in this world who need your help.

So it’s important to remember that while the Identifiable Victim Effect certainly does not help victims equally, it has proven useful for marketing non-profits and garnering donations. It depends on human compassion and the emotional response to another human’s suffering. Even though it must highlight an individual victim, not an identified group of several individuals (Kogut & Ritov, 2005), the fact that we feel emotion for and give generously to individual victims demonstrates our capacity to care for those in need. All this requires is a point of connection, like when identifiable victim tugs at our emotions because we have something in common with them. People like that feeling of making a difference, of seeing their donation have a clear and measurable impact, and of connecting with another identifiable human being in some small way (Pinantoan, 2013). Perhaps, in this way, the Identifiable Victim Effect is evidence of our humanity. Yet it keeps thousands of unidentifiable victims from getting the help they need by giving preference to the few that media and charities choose to highlight.

As charitable humans, it is our responsibility to seek justice and aid for all people, not just those who make it into the limelight. So what can we do to bring the most good for the most people? Studies haven’t answered that yet. For you and me, the responsibility is simple: think rationally and carefully about where your donations will do the most good, and don’t stop giving entirely. There are plenty of suffering victims in this world who need your help, whether you’ve heard their individual stories or not.



Genevsky, A., Va¨stfja¨ll, D., Slovic, P. and Knutson, B. (2013). Neural Underpinnings of the Identifiable Victim Effect: Affect Shifts Preferences for Giving. The Journal of Neuroscience, 17188. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3807035/

Jenni, K. E. and Loewenstein, G. (1997). Explaining the Identifiable Victim Effect. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Vol. 14, No. 3. Retrieved from: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1007740225484

Kogut, T., & Ritov, I. (2005). The ‘Identified Victim’ Effect: An Identified Group, or Just a Single Individual? Journal Of Behavioral Decision Making18(3), 157-167. Retrieved from: doi:10.1002/bdm.492

Pinantoan, A. (2013). The Identifiable Victim Effect and How It Affects Your Marketing. Small Business Trends. Retrieved from: https://smallbiztrends.com/2013/06/identifiable-victim-effect-marketing.html

Small, D. A., Loewenstein, G., & Slovic, P. (2007). Sympathy and callousness: The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victims. Organizational Behavior And Human Decision Processes. Retrieved from: doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2006.01.005

  1. skbarr20
    April 27th, 2017 at 16:10 | #1

    Excellent and very important post, Tori! I had no idea how things like face recognition and automatic/controlled processes could impact how much people are willing to donate to charities. I definitely think more information should be available to the public about this, and also that more research should be conducted in order to shed light on where our money is best spent. This post makes me think of the many GoFundMe pages for suffering children and families I’ve seen on social media, and how tempted I’ve been to donate. To me, it feels like I should contribute because in so many cases, the victims’ misfortune is through no fault of their own. This is emphasized in a study in the journal Social Influence: the belief that victims are underserving of their fates contributes to the identifiable victim effect (Lee & Feeley, 2016). I also thought it was really cool how you related it to marketing – charities can definitely use tactics such as individual photos of suffering individuals to make people more likely to donate to them. All the same, perhaps companies like GoFundMe should have footnotes or warning labels designed to make people aware of this cognitive bias.

  2. May 8th, 2018 at 10:48 | #2

    This post is very interesting, and very relatable! Its troubling that knowing about the effect could cause us to stop donating, I hope that future research can come up with a way to combat this effect and promote thoughtful donations. As someone who is actively engaged in volunteering and tries to donate to causes as much as possible, it is very surprising to me that this effect relies on controlled processes opposed to automatic processes.

    Because automatic processes are automatic responses, like emotions, I feel as though my core values to donate and volunteer would be reflected by automatic processes. In other words, I feel as though it is guided by my personal values and emotions and that it is no longer an effortful deliberation. But maybe it should be. Your post has made me consider that maybe I should put more thought into who I am volunteering/donating too and why.

    I think the biggest reason this post caught my eye is because it seems very unfortunate that these decisions are guided by controlled processes. As you stated, controlled processes are effortful and take time. Additionally, as we have learned in cognitive psychology controlled processes require attentional resources, and our attentional resources are limited. When our resources are limited we engage in automatic processes, which based on your suggestion would involve not taking the time to donate. This leaves me with a few questions. How can we engage people in these charities when their attention and cognitive resources are not as limited? And could we make this process of donation an automatic process?

    These both seem to be very difficult tasks to address. We may be able to encourage donations in the morning, when people have the most cognitive resources available. But this could prove to be very difficult if people do not donate to causes on a regular basis. As we know from visual search tasks and Logans Instance theory it is certainly possible to make controlled processes automatic with practice and repeated recall. The more memory traces that we create the closer the process is to being automatic. Despite this, I am unsure of what we would have people practice or recall to make this process automatic? Repeated donation? This still leaves the issue of making sure that individuals donate to worthy causes where there doantion can make the biggest impact.

    I am unsure how to address these issues. But as you have suggested this is a very important cause, and one that certainly warrants further research. Hopefully we can find a way to make cognitive processes conducive to thoughtful and meaningful donations and charity work.

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