The Psychology Behind Giving Decisions

Editor’s note: This blog is an excerpt from the new Barna study “The Good News About Global Poverty,” and is part of a release of other data related to this study.

CoLab: Sharing Jesus

Who doesn’t have clean water? Usually, someone who is materially poor and lives where the government doesn’t provide many services. In all likelihood, people without clean water have an array of other problems related to poverty. So, why are U.S. adults in this Barna survey more inclined to support

clean water initiatives than global poverty alleviation? It may have more to do with human psychology, rather than a lack of concern for the sweeping issue of global poverty. Let’s look at a few factors that research shows often impact decision-making and giving.

Specificity Motivates
Whether or not they know it, the choosy potential donors in this survey may be following some good advice on reaching a big, general, long-term goal. One of the practical applications to come out of decades of research on motivation is SMART goals. SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-specific. The Millennium Development Goals, for example, abide by these standards. One of these goals was to “halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day.” And we did it—five years ahead of schedule. Now, many charities are working on the Sustainable Development Goals, which call for eradicating extreme poverty everywhere by 2030.

Cutting big problems down into smaller, more specific problems can be very helpful. Contributing to clean water or literacy may make you feel like you’re tackling a smart (or SMART) goal—something easier to grasp and more motivating than the general idea of fighting global poverty.

The Catalyst of Individual Connections
Our brains also seem wired to want to help more when the act might affect most if not all of the victims (1). This is one component of what researchers have come to call the “identifiable victim effect” (2). When we see an individual suffering—and especially if we believe that individual is not responsible for their bad situation—we are more likely to respond than if we hear about a large, somewhat impersonal grouping of people affected (3). When there’s a tradeoff, people often choose identifiable victims over statistical victims (4). Statistical victims register more like numbers in our brains, regardless of how widespread or severe their circumstances may be. In his 1968 article introducing the identifiable victim effect, Thomas Schelling wrote that an individual’s death causes “anxiety and sentiment, guilt and awe, responsibility and religion, [ but]. . . most of this awesomeness disappears when we deal with statistical death” (5).

Of course, to identify a victim may require personal exposure to a problem. In a study that showed that people in poor neighborhoods donate relatively more, the identifiable victim effect (and maybe much more) is at play (6).

I now live in Burundi, a country where a high percentage of people are extremely poor, and can attest to the power of personal engagement with those touched by poverty. It would be hard not to think of my neighbors when deciding about charity donations in the future.

A Tendency to Normalize
But, history has taught us, exposure to poverty is not all that counts. After all, even a high proportion of dictators comes from humble origins. And we all can likely name someone who sees suffering and blames the victim—or just doesn’t notice. Why does this happen? In part, it is because every human is

in danger of getting used to things they should not get used to. This is the psychological principle known as the “hedonic treadmill”—basically, the idea that we acclimate to nearly everything after a while and return to a normal emotional state (7). This can be a benefit when recovering from job loss, disabilities or other big problems—but on the other hand, it can also make us callous to the trauma or trials of others. For some reason, being human means caring about specific victims and specific goals. If only those impulses were more strategic!

We might reduce poverty more if statistics played on our heartstrings, too. I don’t necessarily believe that impulses like the identifiable victim effect are tendencies we should resist in the name of efficiency; scripture tells us that Jesus also felt the waves of compassion when personally and specifically confronted with needs (see Matthew 9:36, Matthew 14:14 or Luke 7:13). And, after all, it’s the Creator, not any individual, who can fully bear the weight of all the pain and all the statistics in the world. But there is something we should resist: getting used to poverty, near or far.

The Things that Divide Americans


Written by Susan Mettes
Research analyst, Barna Group
Susan holds degrees from Northwestern University (BA) and Duke University (MPP). She is an editor-at-large for Christianity Today magazine, after having worked there as international editor from 2006–2009. Her work history includes positions at Thrivent Financial and Duke University, where she researched topics such as behavioral economics and church life. She has done writing and research for the Barna Group, Gates Foundation, World Vision and Dan Ariely at the Center for Advanced Hindsight. Currently, she lives in Burundi with her husband.

1. Karen E. Jenni and George Loewenstein, “Explaining the “identifiable victim effect,” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty Volume 14, 1997, p. 235–257.
2. Deborah A. Small and George Loewenstein, “Helping  a  Victim or Helping the Victim: Altruism and Identifiability,” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty Volume 26, 2003, p. 5–16.
3. Deborah A. Small, George Loewenstein and Paul Slovic, “Can Insight Breed Callousness? The Impact of Learning about the Identifiable Victim Effect on Sympathy,” Conference on Economics and Psychology, Toulouse, France,  June 20–21, 2005.
4. Jennifer S. Lerner, Deborah A. Small and George Loewenstein, “Heart Strings and Purse Strings: Carryover Effects of Emotions on Economic Decisions,” Psychological Science Volume 15.5, May 15, 2004, 9. 337–341.
5. Thomas C. Schelling, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” in Samuel B. Chase ed. Problems in Public Expenditure Analysis: Studies of Government Finance (Washington: The Brookings Institution, 1968).
6. Derek D. Rucker and Richard E. Petty, “Emotion Specificity and Consumer Behavior: Anger, Sadness, and Preference for Activity,” Motivation and Emotion, Volume 28.1, March 2004, p. 3–21.
7. Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein, “Hedonic Adaptation,” in Daniel Kahneman, Edward Diener and Nortbert Schwarz,Well-Being: Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 2003).
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