One of the puzzling phenomena in philanthropy is that people can show strong compassion for identified individual victims but remain unmoved by catastrophes that affect large numbers of victims. Two prominent findings in research on charitable giving reflect this idiosyncrasy: The (1) identified victim and (2) victim number effects. The first of these suggests that identifying victims increases donations and the second refers to the finding that people's willingness to donate often decreases as the number of victims increases. While these effects have been documented in the literature, their underlying psychological processes need further study. We propose a model in which identified victim and victim number effects operate through different cognitive and affective mechanisms. In two experiments we present empirical evidence for such a model and show that different affective motivations (donor-focused vs. victim-focused feelings) are related to the cognitive processes of impact judgments and mental imagery. Moreover, we argue that different mediation pathways exist for identifiability and victim number effects.
Dickert, S., Kleber, J., Västfjäll, D., & Slovic, P. (2016). Mental imagery, impact, and affect: A mediation model for charitable giving. PLoS ONE, 11(2). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0148274