Don’t Let The Facts ...

sally struthers

A study led by University of Pennsylvania Professor Deborah Small caught my attention.

The study examined how different types of content influence people when it comes to charitable giving.

Check out the following passage which personalizes the need:

Any money that you donate will go to Rokia, a seven-year-old girl who lives in Mali in Africa. Rokia is desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger, even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed and educate her, and provide her with basic medical care.

Now, read the passage that lays out the logical facts for need:

Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than three million children. In Zambia, severe rainfall deficits have resulted in a 42% drop in maize production from 2000. As a result, an estimated three million Zambians face hunger. Four million Angolans – one-third of the population — have been forced to flee their homes. More than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance.

This experiment in charitable giving allowed people to donate up to $5.

Which type of content do you think elicited the most in donations?

No doubt, you selected the first passage that shares the little girl’s personal story.

And you’re right.

Humanizing the need generated roughly twice the amount of money as the case made with statistics (which I suppose explains those Sally Struthers commercials on late night cable TV).

But the study didn’t stop there.

It created a hybrid pitch that centered on Rokia but also included facts and figures.

Now, what do you suppose happened to the donations?

As you can see in the chart below. combining factual information with the child’s story actually lowered the donations compared to the money that came in from pure storytelling.

stats narrative storytelling

When I’ve shared this information in storytelling workshops, inevitably a good 75 percent of the room predicts that the giving will go up. Such an approach is perceived to combine the best of both worlds, a personal story and supporting facts.

Yet, the study shows that weighing down the narrative, even with the best intentions, can decrease the power of the story.

If you’re interested in mining the study yourself, it’s called “Sympathy and callousness: The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victims.”

The scientific world has a way with words.

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