Statistical Victims

If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
Mother Teresa

In recent times I’ve regularly blogged on mining and presenting data collected from OSS databases.

But today I have a fascinating paper on human psychology to discuss that may make you think again at how you wish to present your information if you wish to persuade.

The group of studies by Deborah Small, et al, is titled “Sympathy and callousness: The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victims.” Doesn’t sound particularly relevant to OSS does it? 🙂

In their first study saw participants given 5 x $1 notes for their involvement, but were then given the opportunity to donate any of that money towards starving children in Africa. Their first group of participants were told an impassioned story about millions of starving children spread across many countries (the Statistical Victims). The second group was told the story of Rokia, a seven year old girl living in Mali who faces the threat of starvation without your assistance (the Identifiable Victim).*

Based on this study, participants gave an average of $1.14 to the statistical victims and $2.38 to the identifiable victims. You’ll have noticed that the statistical victim is less than half as effective at eliciting a sympathetic response.

In the next study, participants were given the opportunity to choose the identifiable victim, but this time half of the group were primed with feelings (When you hear the word ‘‘baby’’ what do you feel? Please use one word to describe your predominant feeling) and the other were primed with statistics (If an object travels at five feet per minute, then by your calculations how many feet will it travel in 360 seconds?).

Those primed for feelings donated $2.34 (almost the same as the first study), whilst those primed for statistics donated $1.19. Roughly half the amount.

Okay, this is a long story, but why is this important for OSS data?

Well, most of us in the industry tend to prime our audience with statistics, yet it appears that statistics dull our audience’s sense of generosity. So if you’re trying to gain support for a business case or need assistance on an assignment, this research seems to suggest that you should cut the stats and concentrate on the story and feelings relating to your project. Can you help your audience to visualise and feel what the desired outcomes are?

Are you stunned? I was!!

Statistics are undoubtedly still important, but as reinforcement of your story.


* BTW. Exact wording of the two alternatives were as follows:

In Zambia, severe rainfall deficits have resulted in a 42 percent drop in maize production from 2000. As a result, an estimated three million Zambians face hunger. Four million Angolans—one third of the population— have been forced to flee their homes. More than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance.

Any money that you donate will go to Rokia, a 7-year-old girl from Mali, Africa. Rokia is desperately poor, and faces a threat of severe hunger or even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of  your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work  with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed her, provide her with education, as well
as basic medical care and hygiene education.

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