Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has some answers, based on years of reporting experience. If you're a typical activist, you won't like the results. They reinforce the model that most activists hate, put a face on the problem. Find a person struggling and making progress and show people how they can join this person.
What are Kristof's views on how to draw people to a worthy cause?
"We intervene not because of stories of desperate circumstances but when we can be cheered up with positive stories of success and transformation. For example, one experiment found that people are quite willing to pay for a water-treatment facility to save 4,500 lives in a refugee camp with 11,000 people in it, but they are much less willing to pay for the same facility to save 4,500 lives when the refugee camp is said to have 250,000 inhabitants. In effect, what matters is saving a high proportion of people, not just a large number of lives.There you have it, find a face to represent your cause, and make it a face that exemplifies progress and hope. I'm sorry to say it, but your statistics won't work. Tweet
If one lesson is the need to emphasize hopefulness, the second is that storytelling needs to focus on an individual, not a group. A classic experiment involved asking people to donate to help hungry children in West Africa. One group was asked to help a seven-year-old girl named Rokia, in the country of Mali. A second was asked to donate to help millions of hungry children. A third was asked to help Rokia but was provided with statistical information that gave them a larger context for her hunger. Not surprisingly, people donated more than twice as much to help Rokia as to help millions of children. But it turned out that even providing background information on African hunger diminished empathy, so people were much less willing to help Rokia when she represented a broader problem. Donors didn't want to help ease a crisis personified by a child; they just wanted to help one personand to hell with the crisis.
As we all vaguely know, one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. As Mother Teresa said, "If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will." Professor Slovic calls the first reaction "psychic numbing." But Slovic wanted to know at what point the number of victims triggers psychic numbing. He set out to find out, and his findings were deeply depressing.
In one of Slovic's experiments, people were asked to donate to Rokia or, in other cases, to a similar hungry boy, Moussa. In each case, research subjects were quite willing to help and donated generously either to Rokia or to Moussa. But when people were asked to donate to Rokia and Moussa together, with their photographs side by side, donations decreased. Slovic found that our empathy begins to fade when the number of victims reaches just two. As he puts it: "The more who die, the less we care."