The Problem

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was killed when police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for over eight minutes during an arrest for allegedly using counterfeit money. Floyd quickly became the latest in a highly publicized string of Black Americans killed at the hands of often white cops. The news and video of Floyd’s death spread like wildfire in the media, igniting widespread protests and petitions for racial justice. In addition, Floyd’s family was flooded with donations and support from celebrities and strangers alike, helping them afford funeral and legal costs. While the outpouring of support for Floyd’s family is nothing short of amazing, their aid is disproportionate to that given to other victims of racial injustices. George Floyd is now a household name, but there are innumerable others who met a similar fate and will never see the same direct assistance that Floyd’s family did.

The Explanation

The disparity of assistance given to Floyd’s family over others in similar situations can be attributed to the identifiable victim effect. The identifiable victim effect is the tendency of people to offer greater assistance to specific individuals in demonstrated need, rather than a large, ambiguously-defined group with the same need. Being able to put a face to the name of a victim, so to speak, and directly observing their hardship elicits more sympathy than large groups whose members are not all easily identifiable. It is easier to identify a single victim of hardship than to grapple with abstract statistics describing the same hardship for whole populations of people.

Definition: Identifiable Victim Effect

The identifiable victim effect is a cognitive bias that leads people to offer greater aid to specific victims of observed hardship than to larger groups whose identity or hardship is less defined or obvious.

The History and How It Works

The identifiable victim effect was first explained in detail by economist Thomas Schelling in 1968. He pointed out that there is a subjective difference in individual life and statistical life, citing instances in which people are more willing to donate to a single patient in need of a life-saving surgery than to organizations that would improve the infrastructure of an entire hospital. Schelling implied that the reasoning behind this is the sense of responsibility or blame a person might feel in a situation where life is at stake. In the previous example, the patient in need of surgery is already a victim, so donors feel more responsibility to take action and more blame if something goes wrong. On the other hand, donating to the infrastructure of the hospital might help future patients, who are not yet victims. It is easier for people to rationalize helping those who need immediate help over those who may or may not need help in the future. The image of the present patient is more vivid in the eyes of the donor, whereas the image of future patients remains to be seen. Assisting the present patient will have a sure effect on their outcome, but it seems less certain that current assistance will help future patients.

Applying It

The identifiable victim effect is a helpful cognitive bias in that it leads people to render aid to others who really need it. However, while contributing to individual victims of societal issues is respectable and should not be discouraged, it is important to consider the larger systemic issues that might be at play in such situations.

Aid campaigns employ the identifiable victim effect to solicit donations to their organizations. You have likely seen infomercials that portray images of abused animals or impoverished children in Africa with taglines that claim your small donation can help animals or children “just like this one.” These campaigns play on audiences’ sympathy toward the victims shown in the commercial, but in reality do little to change the systemic problems that create those victims. Attacking a problem at its source, instead, can help prevent more individuals from becoming victims. Overcoming identifiable victim bias is essential in this endeavor.

Let’s look at another example, the case of Ryan White. White was a teenager in the 1980s when he was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. He was denied readmission to his school after his diagnosis, and he became the poster child for AIDS patients around the United States. White was the identified victim and support rallied around him during his battle with AIDS. But, after his death from the disease in 1990, Congress passed the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act in his name. To this day, this legislation remains one of the largest federally funded programs to provide support for HIV/AIDS patients and their families. The case of Ryan White showcases how the identifiable victim effect can be surmounted to generate positive outcomes for entire populations in hardship, rather than one select victim.

    Learn More

    1. Jenni, K., & Loewenstein, G. (1997). Explaining the identifiable victim effect. Journal of Risk and uncertainty, 14(3), 235-257.
    2. Erlandsson, A., Björklund, F., & Bäckström, M. (2015). Emotional reactions, perceived impact and perceived responsibility mediate the identifiable victim effect, proportion dominance effect and in-group effect respectively. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 127, 1-14.
    3. Lee, S., & Feeley, T. H. (2016). The identifiable victim effect: A meta-analytic review. Social Influence, 11(3), 199-215.

    Think Further

    1. Can you think of any other instances of identifiable victim bias affecting the attention given to social issues?
    2. Is the identifiable victim effect necessarily a negative cognitive bias? Explain why or why not.
    3. How can we overcome the identifiable victim effect? List 2 possible solutions.

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