The Power of One Vs. Collective
March 24, 2023
Kevin Schulman, Founder, DonorVoice and DVCanvass
Joseph Stalin said “the death of one person is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic.” And Mother Teresa agreed, “If I look at the mass, I will never act.”
Our sense of empathy and moral motivation to help tends to fall off when faced with a group in need versus an individual. This happens because we struggle to naturally and intuitively feel the group experience of feel hunger, pain, sadness, happiness, pride, etc in the same way we feel it for an individual. And this lack of feeling for group feels means we feel less moral motivation to act.
But this isn’t an immutable fact. It’s a general observation.
What if you assign the larger number of people to a relatable group? Three men carrying stuff doesn’t connote the same thing as three wise men bearing gifts.
Here is a close to home example.
- Individual frame: Help Sarah, a young girl who lost her family and home due to a natural disaster.
- Group frame: Help the 500 families who lost their homes and belongings in the natural disaster.
- Group composition frame: Help the 300 single mothers and 200 elderly couples who lost their homes in the natural disaster.
But, this doesn’t always work. In another study the framing was along these lines:
- Individual frame: Help a refugee in south sudan who needs food, water and shelter.
- Group frame: Help 15 refugees in south sudan who needs food, water and shelter.
- Group composition frame: Help 15 refugees in south sudan who live in same village and needs food, water and shelter.
There was no statistical difference across the three frames in giving. What happened? In a word, sample. It wasn’t WEIRD, it was heavily skewed to liberals.
Liberals are more likely to be Agreeable and more prone to helping behavior and much more prone to invoke a moral frame of preventing harm/providing care in all situations. Who they are on the inside swamped out the framing effects – they want to help equally regardless.
The small number of moderates and conservatives in the sample, albeit too small to “magically” flag as significant was in the direction of the global finding – it worked.
Framing the group in a way that makes it relatable helps and can trump the individual.
To be more on target the group framing for a conservative/moderate audience should be different from the “live in a village” example. Their morality “call to arms” is less about provide care/prevent harm and more about abiding by authority (village leaders) or purity (village spiritual leaders).