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.]


I am a Chinese, let me say a fair comment. China is different comparing 34 years ago when a similar quake hit in TangShan. The leader of the Communist Party act quickly to lead the rescue works and bar no press or reportors to the scene. We receive the first hand news and photographs from the scene. And I know that, they well received aids and medicines from nationwide which have been sent directly to the victims there. Aid workers from Japan, Russia, Hong Kong and Taiwan have arrived to the counties joining the rescue forces.

Thomas B.

@Mike B.

The neat thing about motivations is that they are inscrutable, so we can make up any plausible story we want about them, and no one can ever prove us wrong.

If the logical positivists are right, then claims like "all actions are selfish" really don't mean anything at all, since no evidence could contradict or support such statements.


It never fails to amaze me that economists and financial writers seem to have such frankly weird ideas about 'charity' and 'aid' - is it perhaps just too far removed from their areas of expertise?

Mike K

Late to the party, but I agree, like many, with #2. I give a good share of my income to charity each year, but I do research to confirm I know that it will be spent wisely and towards the charitable goal. In the case of Myanmar, particularly, there is little chance of my donation doing any good, as the political situation there prevents any real efforts from reaching the people.

If the UN won't give, why should I?

E. Pierre-Louis

Perhaps, we see China as a particularly rich country now, so the impetus to give money is just not there! I am surprised when I hear news reports that although gov't rescue teams show up in great numbers, they have no equipment with which to dig out the earthquake victims.

I give when I feel it will make a difference in someone's life. And yes, I get a lot of satisfaction out of that.

Greg D

There is very little "pure" altruism in the world. To fit that definition a person would need to put the needs of all others on level par with their own needs. Very rarely is this seen in charitable giving (of money or time).

Most give to charity to feed their own ego but only give enough so that it does not impact their own quality of life in any way. The giver then gets a sense of accomplishment for doing their good deed and can thus continue on in their normal life spending extravagantly on themselves or loved ones with no regard for their fellow humans on earth.

Mike B

There is no such thing as altruism, people make decisions, at some level, based on their own perceived self interest. Be it the good of the community, a reward in the afterlife or simply self therapy, one is silly to believe in "selflessness".


In response to #59., as per wikipedia "In the United States of America, Hurricane is the name assigned specifically to a tropical cyclone of sufficient intensity in the Atlantic and East Pacific.."

So a Cyclone and a Hurricane is basically the same thing - most ppl in other parts of the world use Cyclone as that is the proper name for what folks in the States understand as Hurricane.

Having said that, until the Asian Tsunami, I was unfamiliar with exactly what that was. Perhaps more people will now be aware of Cyclones, but considering that our neighbors in Bangladesh (I am from Burma) had several major Cyclone related disasters in the past decade and yet we have people asking what a 'Cyclone' is, I ain't holding my breath.


I was going to write a different comment but #80 just took my breath away. Are you saying, I don't give because I'm prejudiced? Neither Burma nor Sichuan are Muslim states (though Sichuan has Muslim minorities). Most Muslims do not commit honour killings, and most Muslims do not condone honour killings. We have some nasty stuff in the West too, by the way. Oh, the comment I was GOING to write... Yeah, I gave, $50 to China relief thru Red Cross, $150 to Myanmar through 3 different NGOs (one specifically Christian).


I dont think a lot of activities are happening in the brains when we whip out the check book. Should one go through the process in which Adam Smith describes so elegantly, one is merely finding reasons why not to give / help. It's like going shopping, much purchases are on impulse, but if you think hard on something, chances are you wont buy it.

China is magnanimous enough to accept Taiwan's help. Reason not to donate?


Some of the comments above insinuating that it's somehow China's fault that the US is not donating much are below contempt.

US is donating $15 million to Burma's cyclone disaster, but gave only $500,000 to China's earthquake disaster. China donated $5 million to the US for the Katrina disaster.


Weren't their reports after the tsunami that more donations had been given than could possibly be used? Could this have discouraged gifts to subsequent emergencies. The only article I'm able to find isn't about US donations, but: "Aid groups in France, like their equivalents in many other countries, were almost overwhelmed by the donations that poured in following the tsunami on Dec. 26, 2004... Several said at the time the volume of help for the tsunami victims risked depriving other less prominent relief projects of funds and at least one even turned down donations." I'm pointing to this mostly in order to agree with posters who note that ongoing charitable giving to reliable organizations -- essentially keeping them solvent and prepared to address situations -- is a sounder policy than whipping out the checkbook after each disaster. Also agreed with the above that the number of dead is an irrelevant statistic here, it's the number of displaced survivors and the severity of the threat immediately facing them. I'm guessing Myanmar over China there. Though I also wonder how many of the people who give for distant disasters are also generous when it comes to the ongoing needs of the disadvantaged in their own communities.


David M

Two good ways to get aid into Burma right now:

(1) The International Burmese Monks Organization is collecting money, and they're certainly not going to let the military get it. See

(2) Save the Children already had about 500 people in the country before the cyclone. They're also working on recovery efforts in China. See

To hear from someone working in Burma right now, see


I would love to donate something to help the victims of these disasters... except I have nothing left after being required to donate (i.e., pay taxes for) the disaster caused in the Middle East by our demon-spawned president and his minions.

As per the directions of the demon he follows, our president has caused and continues to cause much more suffering than those like I could ever hope to alleviate.

Normally, I would ask that God have mercy on his soul, but not this time. How can anyone ask mercy for the anti-Christ?

anonymous giver

i hardly ever give money unless it is to a hobo on the street that asks for a dollar. It's really quite amazing cause they usually only ask for dollars. that's not much. I live on $2000/month as it is and cannot afford to give much more. I do pick up wayward hitchhikers every now and then on the street and they are usually surprised that a near half century old divorced housewife is picking up hitch hikers. It could be dangerous. And one person I have helped did actually hurt me once. Anyway, that's the risk you take. Though, hitchhikersand I do talk about stuff. Sometimes they are runaway dads who end up telling me how much they love their kids and I tell them how much it's worth it to do so. I'd like to think the time spent is worth more than money throw at problems that I am not sure gets anywhere. Other times I do anonymous things like pick up trash on the highways to keep America beautiful (now it's not anonymous anymore...oh, well.) or do something for little children to surprise them.

Time is worth more than money. Space and location is harder to negotiate than dimes.


Sinead Miriam Mason

In response to Jessica Stout, comment 59:

Cyclone is a more general term for hurricane-like storms.


The contrast of the "asian" tsunami as opposed to the "pakistani" earthquake seems a little disingenuous. The Asian tsunami mostly hit Indonesia, which is democratic but also has its fair share of political troubles. I think the fairly anecdotal evidence obscures a simpler explanation. The tsunami and katrina occurred during a brief period when Americans paid a lot of attention to natural disasters around the world. They were anomalies, and will skew any attempt to empirically analyze giving.

Don Mac Brown

I really get angry reading comments about altrusim. If anything has been lost by this coutry's psychotic need for OIL, it is the values that our founders pledged their wordly goods to create and sustain.
If we really cared about those values, we would be stopping genocide in Sudan, rather than fighting for our share of OIL in Iraq.


One reason I won't give is that the main nonprofit organization that receives money during disasters is the American Red Cross. But after their mismanagement of hundreds of millions of dollars following 9/11 and Katrina, there's no way on earth I'm going to give them my hard-earned dollars. And as a previous poster noted, I am going to give my money to someone who wants it. If the government of Myanmar doesn't want our help, then I'll save my money for someone who would really appreciate it.


To: Marco Polo (comment 10)
I do recall China offering the US aid for Katrina. I don't know how substantial it was. From the State Department:
"The State Department said offers so far had come from Canada, Russia, Japan, France, Germany, Britain, China, Australia, Jamaica, Honduras, Greece, Venezuela, the Organization of American States, NATO, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, South Korea, Israel and the United Arab Emirates."

To: Stephen:
People have no desire to "give", they have a desire to "help". If giving has no chance of helping, why give? This is basic choice theory with uncertainty.