How pure is your altruism?

Stephen Dubner has some very interesting observations to make at the Freakonomics blog about why we give in response to natural disasters. He begins by providing some data bout how generous Americans were to some recent relief efforts and makes these observations:

Americans gave nearly three times as much money after Hurricane Katrina as they did after the Asian tsunami, even though the tsunami killed many, many more people. But this makes sense, right? Katrina was an American disaster.

Then along comes a terrible earthquake in Pakistan, killing 73,000 people, and U.S. contributions are only $150 million, making the $1.92 billion given after the tsunami look very, very generous. That’s only about $2,054 per fatality in Pakistan, versus an approximate $8,727 per fatality for the tsunami. Two far-away disasters both with huge loss of life — but with a huge disparity in U.S. giving. Why?

Dubner then offers some thoughts on the disparity:

There are probably a lot of explanations, among them:

1. Disaster fatigue caused by Katrina and the tsunami; and

2. Lack of media coverage.

Do you remember coverage of the Asian tsunami? I am guessing you do, especially because in addition to hitting poor areas, it also struck high-profile resorts like Phuket. Do you remember coverage of Hurricane Katrina? Of course. But what about the Pakistan earthquake? Personally, I remember reading a couple of brief newspaper items but I didn’t happen to see any coverage on TV.

. . .

And what causes one disaster to get a lot of coverage while another doesn’t? Again, there are probably a lot of factors, foremost among them the nature of the disaster (i.e., how dramatic/telegenic is it?) and location. Getting back to the recent disasters in Myanmar and China, I’d say there are a few other things worth considering:

1. We are in a season of heavy political coverage in the U.S., which is hard to dislodge from the airwaves.

2. Covering far-away disasters is time-consuming and expensive, which becomes doubly prohibitive when media outlets are in cost-cutting mode.

3. Neither Myanmar nor China (nor Pakistan) have what one would consider a very high Q Score among Americans. I am guessing that most Americans couldn’t find Myanmar on a map, and if they have any impressions about the country at all, they are not good impressions (think “military junta”).

Indeed, donations to Myanmar so far are very low. Considering how unevenly disaster aid is often distributed, maybe this isn’t so terrible. But still: if you are the kind of person who donates money to people in need, isn’t the family of a cyclone victim in Myanmar as worthy of your charity as anyone else? The political or narrative forces of a disaster shouldn’t change our response to the need, should they?

. . .

It may be that the only kind of altruism that truly exists is what economists like to call “impure altruism.” (This is a subject we’ll be writing about at some length in SuperFreakonomics.) Does this mean that human beings are shallow and selfish — that they only give to a cause when it is attractive to them on some level? Will the future produce some sort of “disaster marketing” movement in which aid agencies learn to appeal to potential contributors?

Read it all here.

So is Dubner right? Is all (or at least most) of our altruism impure?

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