I informed my class: “Tomorrow, we are going to read an article called ‘Save the Darfur Puppy’” and my girls responded with a collective squeal of concern about the potentially small, cuddly, imperiled doggy they expected to discover. (I teach at an all-girl school.) I had not anticipated that the title alone would prove Nicolas Kristof’s point. In this 2007 New York Times article, he writes that people are much more likely to pay attention to the story of suffering of an abandoned dog than they are to news of millions of suffering people—human beings—displaced by war or genocide.
The article goes on to explain what can motivate and move people to help others. Kristof cites the “Rokia Study” where researchers showed people various pleas to help end starvation in another country. They compared the impact of one advertisement which cited statistics of millions of starving people to another that showed a single, young, girl named Rokia who was starving in Mali. Overwhelmingly, donors gave to the individual person. Researchers changed the gender to a young boy, Moussa, and found that people were just as willing to give to boys, but when they showed Rokia and Moussa together, just having two people caused donations to diminish. I won’t tell you all the details of the article, because you should read the article for yourself. It is such powerful stuff, you’ll want to share it with your students. You can find it in the Facing History study guide to accompany Nicholas Kristof’s documentary Reporter.
This article was perfect for my class. Last spring, my class had been discussing challenges to human rights experienced by refugees. The students approached the topic with eagerness, but when we looked at a current article about the refugee situation in Syria, I saw their eyes start to glaze over when they heard the statistic that there were nearly two million refugees. They seemed both under-whelmed and unfazed. My sweet and compassionate students seemed to have lost their capacity for caring.
Sometimes the magnitude of a horrible situation can be hard to comprehend. I have a former colleague who tried to impress on students the tremendous loss of life in the American Civil War by describing how many classrooms of our school would be stacked full of bodies. I wanted to slow down and help my students process their own reactions—or, in this case, lack of reaction to a humanitarian crisis. They needed to connect.
Before we read the article, we discussed the concept of the “Universe of Obligation” and I had my students each consider who was inside their personal universe. This is a phrase coined by sociologist Helen Fein which means, “the group of individuals to whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply and whose injuries call for amends.” You can view my previous blog for lesson ideas around this concept as well as the lesson plans from Facing History.
After reading the article, students had plenty of insight into why people would fail to act in the face of massive amounts of suffering. Students said people would want accountability to see that their money goes somewhere and that their donation would have a bigger impact on one person. Also, an individual has a personality which people can connect to and relate to so that person’s story tugs at the heart strings. Many students thought numbers are hard to comprehend, and huge numbers can be overwhelming. They thought people would be immobilized if they think the situation is hopeless or at least that their support will not make a difference. Kristof notes that “the more victims, the less compassion” is shown. My students connected this idea to the story of Kitty Genovese that they had heard from a guest speaker. Genovese was brutally attacked, and killed in New York City in 1964 and though dozens of people heard her screams, no one came to help or called the police. Social psychologists call this the “Bystander Effect”: when more people are present during a crisis, each individual assumes others will respond. The result can be inaction on everyone’s part.
There are so many directions that you can take this discussion. One idea is for History or English teachers to use it when they teach persuasive appeals—logos, ethos, and pathos. Kristof’s article tells us about how to convince or persuade people to act: use a personal story. This is a vote for pathos or appealing to emotions. In my class, we applied this new understanding and insight into human behavior when we worked on the culminating project of the unit. In creating a short video public service announcement about a current human rights issue, each of my students sought out a compelling personal story to help their audience connect and care.
Watch an excerpt on the Rokia study and access additional resources and ideas on "Journalism in a Digital Age" by clicking here.