Chile and Haiti: Duke Research Looks at Public Reaction to Disasters

Last Updated Mar 2, 2010 7:09 PM EST

One way that we as humans process information is through comparisons, so it's no surprise that Saturday's 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile is being contrasted with Haiti 's January earthquake. Many news outlets have made the point that though the quake was bigger in Chile, the devastation has been less severe. But as Washington Post op-ed writer Anne Applebaum wrote Tuesday, making such assessments "will not reconstruct the damaged airport or mobilize the field hospitals and emergency supplies needed to keep the death toll from rising further. It will not inspire charitable donations from around the world."

This last point is of especially significant concern; will those who gave generously to Haiti be willing to donate to Chile less than two months later? Charitable giving in the aftermath of a disaster is often linked to how we perceive humanitarian crises, which recent research from Duke's Fuqua School of Business examines.

Diminishing sensitivity
Namika Sagara of Fuqua and Christopher Olivola of University College London found that the public's reaction to a tragedy largely depends on the number of deaths it brings about. However, people also display "diminishing sensitivity" to disasters. As a Fuqua news release explains, "As an event's death toll increases, each additional death seems less shocking, so that, for example, we appear to care less about the last thousand people to die in a large-scale disaster than the first thousand fatalities."
Blurring numbers
People's reaction to disasters also depends on where they live. The news release states, "In a country such as the UK, which is unused to mass deaths, a medium-scale disaster will seem really shocking, but the shock value will quickly start to blur as the numbers increase, so that large-scale events will seem indistinguishable." Those who live in countries that have suffered more mass losses may be less shocked by disasters, but they will also be able to better differentiate them.

What it means
The research has important implications for those who work in disaster fundraising. As Olivola explains, the study "advances our understanding of people's reactions to humanitarian crises and other deadly events. For example, it would seem that wealthy nations which have the resources to help those countries most affected by mass deaths also have populations that are most likely to show a diminishing sensitivity to human fatalities. We hope this knowledge will ultimately help save many lives."

Do you think that an awareness of diminishing sensitivity can translate into saved lives? And will you be making a donation to Chile?

Image courtesy of Flickr user David Berkowitz, CC 2.0

  • Stacy Blackman

    Stacy Sukov Blackman is president of Stacy Blackman Consulting, where she consults on MBA admissions. She earned her MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and her Bachelor of Science from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Stacy serves on the Board of Directors of AIGAC, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, and has published a guide to MBA Admissions, The MBA Application Roadmap.