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Donating to disaster victims: What makes us reach for our wallets?

Posted on 13/01/2011

New research by academics at Royal Holloway, University of London has revealed that people are more likely to donate to victims of disasters that are perceived to have natural causes, such as floods or earthquakes, rather than humanly caused factors.

The findings show that people are more willing to part with their cash for victims of disasters such as the Tsunami, Haiti earthquake or more recently the floods in Australia and Brazil. But there is a reluctance to donate to victims of humanly caused events such as wars or civil conflict, such as the Darfur crisis, because those victims are blamed more for their plight even if they are objectively blameless.

Dr Hanna Zagefka, from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, explains: “In line with the ‘Just World Belief’ hypothesis, people have an inherent need to believe that the world is just, and so the suffering of innocents calls into question this just world belief. In order to protect it, people try to construe suffering as just whenever possible, and generally humanly caused events provide more opportunity for victim blame than naturally caused events. In addition, the research shows that victims of natural disasters are generally also perceived to make more of an effort to help themselves, and people like to ‘reward’ those who are proactive by donating to them.”

The researchers say people’s decisions about where they put their money are influenced by psychological processes they are not necessarily aware of and this study can provide important tools to help design more effective relief appeals for those victims which are usually forgotten.

Dr Zagefka explains: “Charity appeals for humanly caused disasters could explicitly stress that even though an armed conflict is going on, the victims are impartial civilians who did not trigger the fighting. Similarly, appeals could stress that victims are making an effort to help themselves. This last idea might be particularly helpful, given that many appeals in the past have tended to portray victims as lethargic and passive, presumably to underscore their neediness. Our results suggest that such a portrayal might actually be counterproductive.”

The research has been funded by an Economic and Social Research Council grant.


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