More on "gossip," damned lies, and statistical information

4 minute read

HOMER: But I'm just one man. What can I do?
LISA: You can destroy that evil plant!
HOMER: But what can I do as an individual?

Last week, I wrote a bit about research into the affect of "gossip" in decision-making. By putting people in a situation where they played an economic game with a series of different opponents, the research found that people sometimes behaved as if short pieces of "gossip" about other players determined their decision-making much more than information about those players' past game play. In other words, a short opinion about another player from a third party was more influential than a long list of the other player's actual game history.

I wrote that it was likely a matter of priming:

The relevant point here is that the positive and negative "gossip" terms carry vastly less information than the statistics. And that's what makes them valuable. The choice before a given player is binary -- should you give your partner 1.25 or not? This choice is made vastly easier by the supply of a single bit of information -- is he a jerk, or not? You may be able to derive this information from the statistics, and if you trust someone else, you may make the wrong decision. But it's not hard to see that this experimental setup primes the players to seek a binary information source, the cost of a "wrong" judgment is pretty low, and there is no benefit in giving "wrong" advice.

Well, there's another context in which this kind of priming is important -- and it shows the same story from the opposite side. Razib points me to a paper about priming and charity-giving. In the paper, the authors -- Deborah Small and colleagues -- discover that donors respond poorly to statistical information. The abstract sums it up:

When donating to charitable causes, people do not value lives consistently. Money is often concentrated on a single victim even though more people would be helped, if resources were dispersed or spent protecting future victims. We examine the impact of deliberating about donation decisions on generosity. In a series of field experiments, we show that teaching or priming people to recognize the discrepancy in giving toward identifiable and statistical victims has perverse effects: individuals give less to identifiable victims but do not increase giving to statistical victims, resulting in an overall reduction in caring and giving. Thus, it appears that, when thinking deliberatively, people discount sympathy towards identifiable victims but fail to generate sympathy toward statistical victims.

In this experiment, the potential "donor" was either told a "Save the Children"-type story about a hungry child in Malawi, or she was told a set of statistics about the health toll of food shortages across Africa. The experimenters were interested in the extent to which personifying a crisis increased giving (the "poster child effect").

But what they discovered was surprising -- personifying a problem may increase giving, but giving statistical information depresses charitable giving, even when the problem is personified by a story about a victim:

Apparently, statistical information dampens the inclination to give to an identifiable victim. This result is consistent with the tendency to give less to an identifiable victim after learning about the discrepancy in giving. When jointly evaluating statistics and an individual victim, the cause evidently becomes less compelling. This could occur in part because statistics diminish the reliance on ones affective reaction to the identifiable victim when making a decision (Small et al. 2007:149).

Of course, this observation is problematic if the proximate goal of charitable giving is to increase social welfare. However, if people give to make themselves feel better, then you would probably expect statistical information to reduce giving -- the main effect of statistical information being to show how small one person's contribution is compared to the size of the problem. In that vein, we should only expect huge donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to respond positively to statistics. And indeed, Bill Gates makes malaria statistics a major focus of his public talks -- he has been swayed! For individual donors, you should expect person-to-person kinds of donation to be more effective: they match the individual effect to the same size of problem.

The commonality between this situation and the "gossip" situation is obvious: people use the available information to make decisions. When the amount of information approaches binary (hungry child bad, food good), the decision is more readily made. Introduce complicating factors, and the decision is much more complicated. Notice how those commercials never show the childrens' parents? Introducing that complicating factor provides information that would suppress giving.

In terms of charity, statistical information tends to integrate the problem more fully within a potential donor's worldview, and that's bad for giving. A dollar a day won't solve the hunger problem in Africa, but it will supply you with coffee. At least, non-Starbucks coffee. Those giant problems are the government's problem, anyway.

Stories about poster children are, naturally, propagandistic -- they provide a selected "frame" on the problem, excluding information likely to detract from giving. "Gossip" is often (but not always) propaganda on a personal level. The effect of both is to reduce information, not increase it.

I don't like the way that Small and colleagues frame their paper, by promoting charitable giving as "good" and a reduction in giving as "callousness." Failing to give charitably in response to statistical information is quite rational: people have their own problems, and when you bring their attention to the fact that their money will make a very small difference, it should be no surprise that they may prefer to keep their money! Perhaps charitable giving increases "social welfare," as the study assumes. But that assumes that the frequent resort to propaganda has no social costs.


Small DA, Loewenstein G, Slovic P. 2007. Sympathy and callousness: the impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victims. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 102:143-153. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2006.01.005