Unravelling the psychology behind mass generosity

February 14, 2012

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A Murdoch University researcher has won funding to investigate the psychology behind why certain humanitarian relief campaigns are more successful than others.

Dr Emma Thomas from the School of Psychology is hoping the research will help government and non government organisations (NGOs) form responses to tragedies and disasters.

“I’ll be investigating why some aid efforts attract a lot of popular support, for example the 2004 Asian Tsunami campaign is a classic success story where they had so much support, the aid agencies actually had to give donations back to people. Unfortunately, other appeals are not so successful,” said Dr Thomas.

“I want to understand more about mass generosity.”

Dr Thomas will be partnering with NGOs including the Global Poverty Project to track longitudinal changes in the way people feel about themselves and giving, and the beliefs people hold about generosity. She will be asking what is changing in people’s psychology to make them donate.

“It’s a very crowded marketplace for NGOs right now,” she added. “People are so often asked for their support these days it is not easy to maintain an appeal over a long period of time.”

Dr Thomas will have access to the mailing lists of the NGOs she works with so that she can track the actions of the people on them over a period of time. She will be tracking whether they chose to increase or decrease their contributions, and the reasons behind this.

She’ll also be comparing what happens before and after a natural disaster, and undertaking some experimental research which will try to simulate the conditions for the emergence of mass generosity and then observing the reactions of volunteers.

“The conventional wisdom is that successful campaigns are all about appealing to an individual’s basic self interest. I don’t agree, I think that a successful campaign works because it appeals to a collective interest. If everyone else is doing something like donating to a campaign, it creates public buzz and a lot of human behaviour is driven by what other people are doing,” she said.

“The very successful Movember appeal is an example of people joining in on a visible mass action. It’s this collective mobilization, where everyone talks about it and joins in supporting an appeal, that I am seeking to describe in this research.”

Dr Thomas’ three year research project will be funded by $375,000 from the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA).

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