When you turn on the television and see Pakistanis or Australians overwhelmed by floodwaters, do you feel more sympathy than you would for victims of ethnic conflict in Darfur?

A European Journal of Social Psychology study has found that people are more willing to donate money to victims of natural disasters than man-made disasters. Why? They believe victims of natural catastrophes are less responsible for the dire straits they are in, and more proactive about helping themselves.

During one phase of the study, British students read about a fictitious charity's efforts to combat a famine alternatively caused by a natural drought or armed conflict. Students assigned less blame to the victims of the naturally caused famine, viewed them as more invested in improving their own situation, and donated more money to their cause. A similar pattern emerged when students evaluated two real-life disasters: the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and Darfur's civil war.

The study's lead researcher, Hanna Zagefka, attributed the results in part to the "Just World Belief" hypothesis, which holds that people want to believe the world is a just place. In trying to justify suffering, she explains, it's usually easier to blame victims of humanly caused events.

Zagefka adds that her findings have implications for how charities organize their fundraising campaigns:

Charity appeals for humanly caused disasters could explicitly stress that even though an armed conflict is going on, the victims are impartial civilians who did not trigger the fighting. Similarly, appeals could stress that victims are making an effort to help themselves. This last idea might be particularly helpful, given that many appeals in the past have tended to portray victims as lethargic and passive, presumably to underscore their neediness. Our results suggest that such a portrayal might actually be counterproductive.


(Hat tip: Christopher Shea at The Wall Street Journal)