Solve the whole problem, or don’t bother (aka the psychological underpinnings of the silver bullet)

Consider this: it’s a bright summer day and you’re walking through a park. A small child sits on the grass nearby, crying and apparently hungry. Her mother arrives, a large bag of Cheerios in hand. She reaches in, selects seven crispy rounded Os and hands them to the child. Then she returns to her bench and her book. The child, Cheerios already gone and still hungry, begins to wail.

What would you make of this mother? Who could do such a thing? Yet this is exactly what anyone who has given to an internationally focused charity does with each donation. We solve a small piece of a larger problem, but the cries for help are as loud as before. So why bother?

People bother because there is intrinsic satisfaction in giving, and because a small part of the solution can make a huge difference to the specific people helped by a charitable gift. We are told that our gift matters. Charities focus us on a small piece of the problem, to avoid the apathy brought on by the seemingly insurmountable mountain of global poverty. And that is based on good science. The well-documented “identifiable victim effect” suggests people give more in response to the story of a disadvantaged person, rather than to statistical information on many thousands of such people.

A hypothesized driver of the identifiable victim effect is that people want to solve the whole problem. People are more motivated to act when a higher proportion of the ‘reference group’ can be helped, thinking, for example, that it is more important to save all 25 potential victims of a car crashes at a specific intersection than to save 25 victims out of 50,000 car crash victims overall. So when the ‘reference group’ is one, as in the identifiable victim scenario, people are motivated to give more.

The urge to solve the whole problem manifests itself in another aspect of international development — the search for the silver bullet. As it is apparently unsatisfying to deploy a few million dollars to eliminate poverty in one community or region, international development organizations and their supporters search for silver bullet solutions to the whole problem, whether that be micro-finance or economic liberalization. Sometimes these strategies pay off, but they are risky — when they don’t succeed resources that otherwise could have at least helped some people are wasted.

To muster resources for poverty reduction, there are then two options: continue to focus donors on solving some individual problem and occasionally disappoint them with not-so-silver bullets, or find another way to connect an individual’s actions to solving the whole problem. A recent mini-survey I conducted on Amazon’s MTurk illustrates one possibility for doing the latter. Respondents were asked one of two hypothetical questions. Either:

If a charity promised you that by donating $400 every year they would lift one poor family out of poverty forever, would you agree to make that donation each year?”

Or:

If the government proposed a tax of $400 a year, which would be used to end poverty for all poor families in the world, would you support such a tax?”

From the perspective of the individual, both outcomes are the same — they would pay $400 a year. But the responses were not the same. Those shown the second question were 31 percent (13 percentage points) more likely to agree to contribute. If you allow me a gross extrapolation, based on the number of US taxpayers, the extra 13 percentage points willing to give amounts to $7.2 billion donated per year.

Could the discouragement from not solving the whole problem actually be a reason people don’t give? It is at least informative to see that respondents who have not given to charity in the last year are 104 percent (25 percentage points) more likely to agree to contribute when seeing the tax question rather than the individual household question, versus people who have given to charity in the last year who are only 22 percent (10 percentage points) more likely to want to give when seeing the tax question.

The results from the survey hint at an alternative to the bipolar approach to charity, with a focus on identifiable victims on one hand and a risky quest for silver bullets on the other. Perhaps by solving a collective action problem in charitable donation — where people are inclined to give only if others do and the whole problem can be solved — the international development sector can focus on scaling up proven, low-risk approaches to poverty alleviation. There’s a thought.