How Pure Is Your Altruism?

We’ve had a lot of conversations on this blog about charitable contributions. For instance: where people like to give, and why; how a young philanthropist should disburse $70 million; whether to give to a street beggar, a hot dog vendor, or neither. So let’s start one more conversation on the subject.

There have been a pair of huge natural disasters in the past two weeks: a cyclone in Myanmar and and an earthquake in China, each of which have killed tens of thousands of people.

Have you written a check yet to donate to either cause? I seriously doubt it.

Why do I say that? Before looking at these recent tragedies, first consider the following three natural disasters from a few years ago, listed along with number of fatalities and amount of U.S. individual charitable donations (according to Giving U.S.A.):

1. Asian Tsunami (Dec. 2004)
220,000 deaths
$1.92 billion

2. Hurricane Katrina (Aug. 2005)
1,577 deaths
$5.3 billion

3. Pakistan Earthquake (Oct. 2005)
73,000 deaths
$0.15 billion ($150 million)

Americans gave nearly three times as much money after Hurricane Katrina as they did after the Asian tsunami, even though the tsunami killed many, many more people. But this makes sense, right? Katrina was an American disaster.

Then along comes a terrible earthquake in Pakistan, killing 73,000 people, and U.S. contributions are only $150 million, making the $1.92 billion given after the tsunami look very, very generous. That’s only about $2,054 per fatality in Pakistan, versus an approximate $8,727 per fatality for the tsunami. Two far-away disasters both with huge loss of life — but with a huge disparity in U.S. giving. Why?

There are probably a lot of explanations, among them:

1. Disaster fatigue caused by Katrina and the tsunami; and

2. Lack of media coverage.

Do you remember coverage of the Asian tsunami? I am guessing you do, especially because in addition to hitting poor areas, it also struck high-profile resorts like Phuket. Do you remember coverage of Hurricane Katrina? Of course. But what about the Pakistan earthquake? Personally, I remember reading a couple of brief newspaper items but I didn’t happen to see any coverage on TV.

Consider the recent paper “Media Coverage and Charitable Giving After the 2004 Tsunami,” by Philip H. Brown and Jessica H. Minty. Here’s their rather startling — if sensible — conclusion:

Using Internet donations after the 2004 tsunami as a case study, we show that media coverage of disasters has a dramatic impact on donations to relief agencies, with an additional minute of nightly news coverage increasing donations by 0.036 standard deviations from the mean, or 13.2 percent of the average daily donation for the typical relief agency. Similarly, an additional 700-word story in The New York Times or Wall Street Journal raises donations by 18.2 percent of the daily average. These results are robust to controls for the timing of news coverage and tax considerations.

And what causes one disaster to get a lot of coverage while another doesn’t? Again, there are probably a lot of factors, foremost among them the nature of the disaster (i.e., how dramatic/telegenic is it?) and location. Getting back to the recent disasters in Myanmar and China, I’d say there are a few other things worth considering:

1. We are in a season of heavy political coverage in the U.S., which is hard to dislodge from the airwaves.

2. Covering far-away disasters is time-consuming and expensive, which becomes doubly prohibitive when media outlets are in cost-cutting mode.

3. Neither Myanmar nor China (nor Pakistan) have what one would consider a very high Q Score among Americans. I am guessing that most Americans couldn’t find Myanmar on a map, and if they have any impressions about the country at all, they are not good impressions (think “military junta”).

Indeed, donations to Myanmar so far are very low. Considering how unevenly disaster aid is often distributed, maybe this isn’t so terrible. But still: if you are the kind of person who donates money to people in need, isn’t the family of a cyclone victim in Myanmar as worthy of your charity as anyone else? The political or narrative forces of a disaster shouldn’t change our response to the need, should they?

We might like to think that we donate almost blindly, depending on need rather than our own response to the particulars of a disaster. But the growing economics literature on charitable donations shows that isn’t the case.

In a narrow but very compelling piece of research, John List argued that if you are trying to solicit donations door-to-door, the single best thing you can do to get large donations is to be an attractive blond woman.

I thought of this research when the N.F.L. was raising money in a weekend telethon after Hurricane Katrina. Between games and during halftimes, the league had star players manning the phones; in the end, the money the league raised was relatively very, very low. They probably would have done a lot better if they had used cheerleaders to solicit donations instead of the players.

So given the particulars of the disasters in Myanmar and China, as tragic as they are, I feel pretty confident in predicting that U.S. charitable contributions in each case won’t be very large. (One surprising upside may, however, emerge for China: activists from the U.S. and elsewhere who’ve been urging an Olympic boycott may find it harder to stir up anger against a country that will still be in mass mourning.)

It may be that the only kind of altruism that truly exists is what economists like to call “impure altruism.” (This is a subject we’ll be writing about at some length in SuperFreakonomics.) Does this mean that human beings are shallow and selfish — that they only give to a cause when it is attractive to them on some level? Will the future produce some sort of “disaster marketing” movement in which aid agencies learn to appeal to potential contributors?

[Note: I’ll be speaking more about this subject tomorrow (Wed., May 14), at about 6:15 a.m. EDT on the new public-radio show The Takeaway.]

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  1. Bill says:

    Adam Smith talked about this:

    Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

    Theory of Moral Sentiments: Part III. Of the Foundation of our Judgments concerning our own Sentiments and Conduct, and of the Sense of Duty in paragraph III.I.46

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  2. Erika says:

    Oh, and all the news media that I’ve heard on Myanmar is about how the aid isn’t allowed in or is going to the rich, so why would I send them money? I did hear that has some workaround, but I haven’t looked into it myself.

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  3. matt says:

    A big difference in media coverage is access. China is not very willing to let foreign reporters into the unsettled western region, and Myanmar isn’t even letting in aid workers. Its hard for news media to report on places they aren’t allowed to go.

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  4. Walter Wimberly says:

    I think part of the fatigue is also with monetary fatigue. Not only are we “tired” of hearing about the disasters, but if I gave $100 to disaster A, then I cannot give it to disaster B next month.

    But even more of the issue I think has to do with there being no such thing as altruism (personal belief). I believe that everyone who acts “selfishly” does so for a reason, be it karma points to make up for something else you’ve done, or in case you’ll need it later, getting to feel good, or to show what a wonderful humanitarian you are. This is why I, like many people I know, start by giving locally. In my house we give first to family, then the neighborhood/community (boy/girl scouts, church, local community center, etc.), then nation wide, then world wide. At some point the money/time/etc runs out, but we’ve effected those closest to us and can see the change. It also allows us to physically observe people properly managing what we’ve donated. If we don’t see them being responsible, we find other places for the money to go. I’ve hated doing that in the past, because I know the people needed it, but when they wouldn’t use what was given to them prudently, considered it wasteful to continue to give as we had to that group.

    Likewise in Myanmar I don’t think many people will donate, partially because the only news your seeing is about how the military isn’t allowing people in, and/or is hording relief supplies. This doesn’t encourage people to donate knowing that their funds will be wasted, and you don’t get to see the devastation of the cyclone because they are not letting that many reporters in. China is also known for limiting the press to keep from looking bad, and could face a similar situation.

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  5. KL says:

    Erika, you’ve revealed the real problem with this issue: sound bites. The headlines may say that aid isn’t going in, but if you read the articles, the actual story is that aid workers are being stopped while aid is going in. As for aid going to “the rich,” I’d like to find some “rich,” middle class people in Myanmar. As for the junta, they do not really care to hoard a bunch of tents and food.

    People should find out the truth for themselves, not just listen to sound bites.

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  6. Nuclear Mom says:

    I agree with comments 2 & 3, which came to mind for me also while reading the piece.

    Interestingly, I gave an invited lecture last week to a poli sci class at a local university on volunteerism and civic participation. I was trying to reach the 75% that do not volunteer, as opposed to the 25% who already do. I brought up Ayn Rand, who believed that altruism is a myth; she felt the only reason people did “selfless” things is because they were rewarded by feeling good about themselves. Well, so what? There’s nothing wrong with doing something for others and feeling good about it. That’s a win-win situation. Also, we’re not talking about donating a kidney, just a few bucks.

    Disappointing that as an overweight brunette, I won’t be pulling in the big bucks though!

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  7. Ben says:

    No such thing is pure altruism anyways, when people give they are always doing it for themselves in some sense.

    As for the differences, I think that the more disconnected people are from an event, the less they care about it. Since Katrina was a lot closer to home people cared more. With Pakistan and the Tsunami it was just a bunch of people over there. It’s exactly like the Peter Singer Solution to World Poverty (

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  8. Pierre-Louis says:

    Why was the fact that Pakistan a muslim country not mentionned? I would think this is the reason why Americans didn’t give much money…and also why it got less media coverage. There is much racism against muslims.

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