Why Folks Don’t Help: A Hypothesis, Plausible Responses, And The Foundations of A Communications Strategy

Posted on April 9, 2009


Some background assumptions:

Most people are good, well-meaning, want to improve the well-being of others (especially the worse-off), and can in fact improve the well-being of others (especially the worse-off).

The problem:

Most persons could do more than they are presently doing to improve the well-being of others (especially the worse-off) and could do so at very little cost to themselves (E.g. minor reductions in consumption spending). In many cases, the short-term costs would even be off-set with long term benefits (e.g. a volunteer position helps a person land a job, the elimination of poverty will contribute to peace and stability and create economic growth).

The hypothesis:

Choice overload plays an important role. There is good empirical evidence (click here for the research paper) which suggests that when people are confronted with too many choices, they choose not to choose. And this makes sense. If a person wants to make a good choice rather than a bad choice, when presented with too many choices, the amount of energy required to make a good choice may seem too costly and the risk of making a bad choice very high. As a result, it may make sense to make no choice at all. I personally have experienced this phenomenon in my own consumer choices and my own efforts to volunteer. 

So, with this phenomenon of reasoning in mind, one can speculate that many people are not doing as much as they could to improve the well-being of others (especially the worse-off) because they are “spoiled for choice.” When a well-meaning person is confronted with so many legitimate claims on his or her time, energy, and resources, he or she may choose to do nothing at all. Moreover, from this perspective, certain well-meaning people actually exasperate the problem by calling attention to how many legitimate claims do exist.

Plausible Response To This Phenomenon:

1) Simplify the choice. E.g. “You can help the developing world, you can help folks here at home, or you can do both.”   

2) Make the choice on their behalf or have someone else make the choice:. “I think the best thing to do is …”; “Singer says, this is the best way to give ….” 

3) Emphasize any choice is a good choice. “Every little bit helps / makes a difference!” 

4) Make the choice seem effortless. “It only takes a few minutes to make a real difference.”

I think these basic responses represent an important part of the framework for an effective communications strategy for all aid organizations. When I think of the most successful campaigns I’ve encountered, they all incorporate these responses. There are also CRM best practice associated with each. For example, it shouldn’t take much effort for me to give an organization my time or money. 

Thoughts? Additions? Etc?


As an addendum, this post was inspired by Julie’s posted link here and PPBP blog’s post and discussion, found here

For more of my social and political commentary, click here.