Research & Insights

Increase Humanitarianism with Sadness

Many are searching for ways to boost support for those overseas who are suffering from the outbreaks of infectious diseases.

Communications scholar Janet Yang from the University of Buffalo found that evoking feelings of sadness can increase support for countries plagued by infectious diseases, like ebola. The findings were published in the December 2015 issue of Risk Analysis.

In the study, about a thousand participants were asked a series of questions to measure their existing knowledge of the crisis, how important they saw the issue, their personal worldviews and how much of a threat they believe Ebola was to the United States.

Then, participants read one of two altered newspaper articles about the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa. The articles were based on an article that appeared in the New York Times, but were modified to make the Ebola threat seem either close to home or far away.

After reading the articles, participants recorded their emotions, such as sadness, anger and fear, as well as whether they would be supportive of a friend or family member if he or she wanted to go to West Africa to help with the outbreak.

When participants reported sadness, they said they were more likely to support friends and family travelling to combat Ebola. Yang suggests this could be due to an increase in empathy toward the people suffering.

While fear did not impact participant support, those who reported feeling angry were less likely to support a friend or family member going to West Africa.

“Anger often results from unfair actions performed by others that lead individuals to feel reactant and antagonistic,” Yang notes. “Participants who felt angry might blame the lack of effective responses from international health organizations during the early days of the Ebola outbreak and attribute the responsibility to dealing with the crisis to them.”

Messages that highlight “vulnerable populations such as children, praise the heroic act of helping those in need, or emphasize the importance of solving a problem at its origin might be more effective than messages that depict the dire situations in West Africa, its lack of basic infrastructure, and the daunting death toll to date,” Yang said.

Risk Analysis

Janet Yang, University at Buffalo

Posted: February 8, 2016
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