The Nonprofit Marketing Blog

Science of Giving 8: The identifiable victim effect – and its limits

Dr. Paul Slovic did an exceptionally good presentation for the wonderful Communications Network awhile back, highlighting the collapse model of human compassion. The idea is, the bigger the number of people in need, the less people want to help. This may not be rational but it sure is human. When humans hear about one identifiable victim, we care more than when we hear about millions. We tend to donate more when we feel we are helping an identified, single individual. (This is called the singularity effect.) Click on the collapse model image for more on how our minds work. And watch the presentation.


In this eighth post on the fascinating book, The Science of Giving, which covers a range of seminal studies about giving psychology, I describe Tehila Kogut and Ilana Ritov’s research into the extent of this identifiable victim effect.

Here are their findings:

1. Yes, people generally donate more when they can identify with one person in need. The “singularity effect” is strong.

2. People are most likely to help those whom they perceive are similar to themselves in terms of social category and nationality. The looser that connection and the greater the psychological difference, the weaker the identifiable victim effect.

3. Politics can skew this. If people identify very strongly with a group based on ideology, this has interesting impact on the identifiable victim effect. In an experiment at Hebrew University testing interest in helping a family that had been evacuated from Gaza, people who opposed the evacuation were most likely to help when they didn’t have an identified family presented to them. People who supported the evacuation were more likely to give when a specific family was identified. In other words, identification with a strong ideology can be more compelling than the identifiable victim effect when in comes to “in-group” dynamics. With “out-group” dynamics, identifiable victims help, because they can help overcome negative emotions toward a group of people.

4. Can people be taught to value life consistently? Can the collapse of compassion be overcome? The researchers said if you prime people to think rationally, they will discount sympathy for the individual and give when statistics are presented. But guess what? They GIVE LESS.

At the end of the chapter, the researchers recommend talking about individuals when you’re fundraising for people of the same nationality as the donor, but to present people in groups when you’re fundraising for an international cause, so you put people in an extensive mindset. But I don’t entirely agree with this. I think their findings don’t entirely support this leap – nor does the experience of fundraisers in the field.

The bottom line in my book? The most important motivator in giving is how close people feel to a cause – whether it be to an identified victim or to a shared ideology. Your best bet is to build that closeness through stories about individuals.

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Linda Lombardi
Content Manager

We’re here to help you win hearts and minds—and donations.

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