Graeme Newell

Identifiable Victim Effect

On the night of October 16, 1987 the entire world held its breath waiting to hear if little Jessica McClure would survive. Baby Jessica had wandered away from her mom and fallen down a well. At the time, there was no question that everything possible should be done to rescue the adorable little girl. Cost was no object.

The whole world cheered as droves of engineers and rescue workers came together and miraculously plucked little Jessica from the well. Her family received almost a million dollars in donations and a TV movie was made.

Stories like Jessica’s touch our deepest emotions, which triggers our generosity. But giving is not a zero-sum gain. Some gifts are exponentially more powerful than others. It’s wonderful Jessica’s life was saved, but if those dollars had been spent on the somewhat less emotional cause of basic healthcare for kids, HUNDREDS of children could have been saved.

The identifiable victim effect lures us to care too much about things we can easily visualize and ignore the suffering caused by things out of sight.

The problem is that stories about things like public health, environmental impact and economic prosperity are dull stories about STATISTICS. But these business and government topics have striking life-or-death consequences for millions of people. The hard truth: there is a real distinction between an individual life and a statistical life. 

Around the same time of Jessica’s rescue, a multi-national wildlife team spent millions to rescue three whales trapped under the Arctic ice cap. Yet all the while, the Japanese whaling industry was spending millions to locate and slaughter whales.

Keep the identifiable victim effect firmly in mind when you feel inspired to give. It’s those dull topics like providing clean water and basic sanitation that have the most life-defining impact.