The Arithmetic of Compassion: Confronting the Challenge of Pseudoinefficacy in Charitable Giving

Paul Slovic & Daniel Västfjäll

National Science Foundation

April 15, 2014 – July 31, 2017

Intellectual Merit

In a great many situations where we are asked to aid persons whose lives are endangered, we are not able to help everyone. What do we then do? Research has shown that people often feel less good about helping those they can help and they help less when their attention is drawn to those who can’t be helped. The demotivation exhibited by these people may be a form of pseudoinefficacy that is nonrational. We should not be deterred from helping whomever we can because there are others we are not able to help. The studies proposed here aim to provide a better understanding of the cognitive and emotional underpinnings of pseudoinefficacy and test strategies to combat it. Specifically, we shall examine pseudoinefficacy in the context of decisions about whether or not to aid people whose lives are endangered. Laboratory experiments and online surveys are designed to illuminate the interplay between the scope and framing of the humanitarian need, the type of thinking it stimulates, and the distinct emotional responses associated with such thinking and with pseudoinefficacy.

Broader Impacts

The importance of this project comes from the fact that, domestically and internationally, millions of people struggle to survive in the face of poverty, disease, food insufficiency, natural disasters, and human malevolence. Those individuals and governments fortunate to have the ability and desire to help those in need are inundated with requests for vital aid. Many do respond. Humanitarian aid provided by individuals, NGOs, and governments, though large in some sense, is but a fraction of what is needed and what could be provided.

For those in a position to help, decisions are strongly motivated by perceived efficacy. Inefficacy, real or perceived, shrivels response, even among those who have the desire and the means to protect and improve lives. It is tragic, indeed, when efficacy goes unrecognized and vital aid that could be provided is withheld due to the illusion of ineffectiveness that we have named “pseudoinefficacy. Our aim in this proposal is to explore and document the root psychological causes of pseudoinefficacy and develop ways to mitigate its harmful consequences. Although our proposed studies are set in the context of humanitarian aid, the problem of pseudoinefficacy is central to a wide range of important personal and societal decisions motivated by perceived efficacy, such as actions to mitigate climate change or other threats to human health and the environment.