Research & Insights

Bad Vibes: Negative Images Reduce Charitable Giving

A new study suggests that appeals for humanitarian aid are less likely to succeed if people see images or are told things they find too upsetting.

This comes from a series of studies that found when fundraising appeals feature images of people who can be helped alongside those who can’t, the willingness to be charitable decreases.

The studies, conducted by researchers Daniel Västfjäll, Paul Slovic and Marcus Mayorga from Decision Research, and published in a 2015 issue of the journal Frontiers in Psychology, show that negative information – like photos of people that can’t be helped or disturbing images – can make people feel less effective at helping others.

These results come from a series of studies in which a request for charity aid was accompanied by photographs of children. The photographs contained captions indicating that some of the children could be helped by the charity and others could not. After viewing the request for aid and the photos, the participants were asked to consider giving money to a charity to help the children and to rank how warm they would feel about their donation.

Some participants saw six children they could help and one they could not. Some saw two children they could help and one they could not. While others saw one child they could help and one they could not, and a fourth group saw a single child who could be helped.

Participants then rated how warm they would feel about making a charitable donation to help the children. Studies have found people help others partially for altruistic reasons, but also because it provides a warm, positive feeling for the helper. In this case, however, the researchers found that participants felt less warm when thinking about a donation when the photo of the child they could help was paired with photos of children they couldn’t help. This effect appeared “even when a substantial proportion of children, though not all, can be helped.”

The researchers suggest that the reason for this is because other, nearby information and images can impact our emotional response to a plea for charity. Another study, for instance, found that showing participants both a photo of a child that can be helped by charitable giving alongside photos of unrelated negative images (such as a shark and a gun) also decreased how warm participants anticipated feeling after giving a donation.

“Irrelevant negative feelings associated with those not able to be helped appeared to blend with the good feelings for those who can be helped, leading to dampened warm glow,” the researchers explain.

This means that requests for donations or calls to action, which include upsetting images or descriptions of massive need, may reduce how positive their audiences feel about stepping up. “One charity put the statistic, ‘3 million in need’ above the picture of a starving child, likely demotivating many donors,” the researchers note.

Frontiers in Psychology 

Daniel Västfjäll, Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden and Decision Research
Paul Slovic and Marcus Mayorga, Decision Research and University of Oregon

Posted: November 25, 2015
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