Nicholas Kristof – compassion and “the law of ones”

Commentary on “Rokia” social psychology experiment:

The participants who read exclusively about Rokia gave an average of $2.38, whereas those who read only the statistics about mass starvation gave remarkably less, averaging $1.14. Those who read about the statistics and Rokia gave only $1.43. Obviously the unadorned appeal for a single individual carried the most persuasive power. Researchers call this the “Mother Teresa effect,” a form of psychic numbing, a reflexive, avoidant warding off of the otherwise staggering effects of statistics, or else the expression of an “identifiable victim effect.”

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has certainly influenced me. In early 2004 his reports on Darfur – a place I’d never heard of – fired me up and I went to my boss at UNICEF and said we had to do some filming on what was going on there. It wasn’t long after that that Darfur became a huge world story. Major mobilization and political action emerged in the West. It certainly didn’t solve all the problems – clearly not – but a huge humanitarian response was mobilized, much political pressure was placed on the Sudanese government and a UN peacekeeping mission was established there.

Kristof’s approach is surely worth examining closely. When I work for the UN, making films, the key question is: how to evoke a response, an active interest in the story – that might just mean mobilization of attention and resources, around some forgotten, or unknown conflict or under-reported issue – ie violent attacks on civilians in Guatemala, refugees stranded in Bhutan for 20 years, drought and the struggle of nomads in northern Kenya.

This article describes how Kristof was influenced by specific scientific research which came up with eye-opening conclusions. The researchers investigated people’s responses when asked to give to a charitable cause. To sum up crudely, if people were given a description of one person in need, they gave the most money. If they were just given statistics on the problem they gave less money. If they were given statistics and a description of a person, they gave less money. If they were given a description of two people, (rather than one person) they gave less money (!). The “Rokia” study, in short seemed to point to a law of ones: people respond more strongly to a depiction of a single individual rather than any other variant.

Of course, this isn’t an entirely new thought to filmmakers, journalists and devisors of charity appeals – but its starkness is still striking.

The objections? You are simplifying a larger problem. You are possibly exploiting the “victim” you are focusing on. You are focusing on the very worst, the most dramatic case, thus distorting the reality on the ground. I think there’s some truth to all those concerns. But Kristof – who was also accused, with some justification, of simplifying the Darfur narrative – was still a major influence in getting Darfur on the agenda in the west and probably did help bring resources to bear more quickly and, arguably, saved thousands of lives.

On a personal level, I often find it almost impossible not to want to do something after reading his columns on developing world issues. He is extraordinarily effective at evoking not just an emotional response, but a desire to act – as opposed to a feeling of impotent depression at how bad the world is.

So there are some caveats, but I think he is getting a lot of things right.

See also Krista Tippett’s comments on Kristof on the same issue.

One response to “Nicholas Kristof – compassion and “the law of ones””

  1. […] “Nicholas Kristof – compassion and ‘the law of ones’” […]

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