Why are we less willing to help the victims of man-made disaster?

Women at an Ethiopian refugee camp

People are more willing to donate money to help victims of natural, as opposed to man-made, disasters. Hanna Zagefka and her team found this is because people generally perceive victims caught up in man-made disasters to be more responsible for their predicament and to be less active in helping themselves, as compared with victims of natural disasters. The findings have implications for the future design of fund-raising campaigns run by charities and NGOs.

Zagefka started by asking 76 participants (average age 50 years) to read one of two accounts of a fictitious flooding disaster. One account implied there was a man-made element to the disaster because the island’s dams hadn’t been built effectively. The other account implied the disaster was caused by the storm being of unusual intensity. The main finding here was that the participants who read the former account were far less willing to donate money to the victims.

A follow-up study with over 200 students gauged their willingness in 2005 to donate to one of two real-life disasters – the Asian Tsunami of 2004 and the Darfur civil war taking place at the same time. The description of the Asian disaster emphasised that it was caused by a big tidal wave. In contrast, the description of the Darfur war emphasised that the situation was caused by ethnic conflict. Again, the participants generally expressed less willingness to donate to victims caught up in the man-made disaster, an effect that appeared to be mediated by their perception that the victims in Darfur were more to blame for their predicament and doing less to help themselves.

Two further studies with hundreds more student participants built on these findings by actually giving them a chance to donate some or all of their participation fee. Again, participants who heard about more natural-sounding disasters tended to donate more money. Using fictional accounts, one of these studies also directly manipulated how blame-worthy the victims sounded, and how much they were reportedly doing to help themselves (by building their own make-shift accommodation, or not). Again, when victims appeared more blame-worthy and less active in helping themselves, participants were less willing to donate.

Zagefka and her colleagues said that not all victims caught up in man-made disasters were necessarily to blame for their predicament – far from it – nor do they necessarily help themselves less than the victims of natural disasters. And yet these new findings suggest that many people make precisely these assumptions, thus biasing them against the victims of man-made disasters.

‘For humanly caused disasters, appeals could explicitly stress that even though an armed conflict is going on, the victims are impartial civilians who did not trigger the fighting,’ the researchers advised. ‘Similarly appeals could stress that victims are making an effort to help themselves. This last idea might be particularly helpful, given that many appeals in the past have tended to portray victims as lethargic and passive, presumably to underscore their neediness. Our results suggest that such a portrayal might actually be counterproductive.’

ResearchBlogging.orgZagefka, H., Noor, M., Brown, R., de Moura, G., and Hopthrow, T. (2010). Donating to disaster victims: Responses to natural and humanly caused events. European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.781

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Previously on the Digest: We’re more generous to a suffering individual than the needy masses. See also: the Scope-Severity paradox, which is our tendency to think crimes that affect more people are less harmful [pdf].

6 thoughts on “Why are we less willing to help the victims of man-made disaster?”

  1. Interesting. A slightly different question is “who's job it is” to help.

    With natural disasters, we think it's everyone's job, because the disaster was caused by “The Earth”, and we all live on the Earth.

    With man-made disasters, we think it's the perpetrators, or their neighbors, who ought to do it. That's not quite the same as blaming the victims, though it is related.

  2. I think another potential interpretation is related to how much people think they can actually help – with man-made disasters we might think that the situation is one that can't be easily rectified, whereas there is more hope of achieving something in response to a natural disaster. Some of the later studies mentioned seem to tell against this, but it might be a small factor..

  3. I think George Marshall's comment is important. The comparison of Darfur and the Asian Tsunami seems very strange: it is far clearer would post-Tsunami relief work could achieve than it is in the extremely complex situation in Darfur. Even where the same disaster was ascribed to natural and man-made causes, I'd guess that people tend to assume that man-made situations will be more complex and so more difficult to help effectively than in the case of a natural disaster. But this may have nothing to do with whether the victims are seen to be helping themselves.

    I think the fourth study is trying to rule this out as an explanation, but it does that by setting up a very artificial situation: whenever would victims *not* try to help themselves in the aftermath of a disaster?

    Also, you don't mention what the effect sizes are in these experiments. We'd need to know the size of the effect to know how important these results are for fund-raising.

  4. Also, there is an element of repeatability. There is the perception of “if I help fix this now, will the perpetrators just create another disaster again?”

    On the other hand, lightning and tsunamis are very unlikely to strike twice in the same place in rapid succession.

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