A blog about living in Aberdeen, New Jersey.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sometimes Two Is Less Than One

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times was Brooke Gladstone's guest for the 11 December 2009 edition of On The Media. In her piece, called "Follow For Now," Kristof tells Gladstone that researchers have discovered the plight of an individual is much more compelling to onlookers than the struggle of thousands -- or even two.

Kristof explains that he was getting frustrated that he couldn't stir his readers to action when he wrote about war, poverty, and the AIDS crisis in Africa, but they readily were taken in by media stories of individual struggle, such as that of Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk, who was fighting all odds to continue his life in the most unlikely of habitats -- Manhattan.

So Kristof did some digging into the psychology of all this and found the work of Paul Slovic, of Decision Research. Among Slovic's experiments he found that if you ask people to help a starving seven-year-old girl from Mali named Rokia, people will want to provide support. It makes them feel good, especially if they can remedy her problem. But if you describe her problem as resulting from famine in her country, their interest tends to drop. And if you add a brother Moussa with the same issue, they are even less willing to donate.

Kristof said, "You know, we all know that at some point people tend to get numbed and tune out, but one of the things that I found fascinating was the number at which we tend to tune out. It’s not a million, it’s not a thousand, it’s not even a hundred - it’s two."


If you want to learn more about what is happening in Africa, you may wish to explore the International Crisis Group website. I also recommend making an end of year donation to WNYC, which produces On The Media and other fine public radio shows. And if you have an iPod, subscribe to the podcast while you're at it.

And if you're interested in exploring human empathy for the individual but a lack of interest in mass philanthropy, Slovic has a one-hour webinar on the Communications Network you may wish to check out. Personally I think the webinar's format is rather frustrating. Slovic's voice is weak in comparison to the interviewer's, the event takes too long to get underway, and, most maddening of all, you can't stop, start, or move about the recording at all. But the topic is surprisingly fascinating, so maybe you'll endure these issues to listen to some or all of it.


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