It doesn't make sense. We are happy to give £6000 to each person affected by the London bombings, but reluctant to cough up £4 for a sleeping net for someone living in a malarial country (see previous post: The Value of an African) -
when it's likely that the £4 will make more of a difference.
But at last pyschologists have worked out why. It's apparently all down to System 1 and System 2
. System 1 is our kneejerk reaction, derived from hunter-gatherer days when we jumped to attention at the first hint of danger. System 2 is slow, analytical and involves, say, working out that your money will go a long way if you give to an anti-malarial campaign.
You might argue that Heart vs Head isn't a dissimilar concept. But there's more to it. It's also about numbers
. Our hunter-gatherer brain is inclined to calculate in tens, not hundreds, and it blanks out completely when presented with (threats to) millions (of people). This PDF by Paul Slovic gives the detail.
The answer, charities are advised, is to tell the story of one individual who represents what 999,999 other people are going through. We primitive donors can identify with that. And I suppose if the charities aren't doing their job, we should search out those individual stories, override our caveman brains with System 2, and give.
There's more like this at the surprisingly readable Stanford Social Innovation Review