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Reference-dependent sympathy


  • Small, Deborah A.


Natural disasters and other traumatic events often draw a greater charitable response than do ongoing misfortunes, even those that may cause even more widespread misery, such as famine or malaria. Why is the response disproportionate to need? The notion of reference dependence critical to Prospect Theory (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979) maintains that self-utility, or benefit to self, is not absolute level of wealth but rather gain or loss relative to a reference point. Four studies show that sympathy (Study 1), dictator offers (Study 2), and judgments of deservingness (Study 3a) are reference-dependent: people respond greater to victims of loss than to victims of chronic conditions. This tendency goes away when people evaluate victims in comparison (Study 3b) and when evaluating affect-poor "statistical victims", as compared to affect-rich "identifiable victims" (Study 4). Together, these results shed light on seemingly irrational patterns of humanitarian aid.

Suggested Citation

  • Small, Deborah A., 2010. "Reference-dependent sympathy," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 112(2), pages 151-160, July.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:jobhdp:v:112:y:2010:i:2:p:151-160

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Amos Tversky & Daniel Kahneman, 1991. "Loss Aversion in Riskless Choice: A Reference-Dependent Model," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 106(4), pages 1039-1061.
    2. Small, Deborah A & Loewenstein, George, 2003. "Helping a Victim or Helping the Victim: Altruism and Identifiability," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 26(1), pages 5-16, January.
    3. Kogut, Tehila & Ritov, Ilana, 2005. "The singularity effect of identified victims in separate and joint evaluations," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 97(2), pages 106-116, July.
    4. Small, Deborah A. & Loewenstein, George & Slovic, Paul, 2007. "Sympathy and callousness: The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victims," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 102(2), pages 143-153, March.
    5. Kahneman, Daniel & Tversky, Amos, 1979. "Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 47(2), pages 263-291, March.
    6. Fetherstonhaugh, David & Slovic, Paul & Johnson, Stephen & Friedrich, James, 1997. "Insensitivity to the Value of Human Life: A Study of Psychophysical Numbing," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 14(3), pages 283-300, May-June.
    7. Jenni, Karen E & Loewenstein, George, 1997. "Explaining the "Identifiable Victim Effect."," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 14(3), pages 235-257, May-June.
    8. Colin F. Camerer & Richard H. Thaler, 1995. "Anomalies: Ultimatums, Dictators and Manners," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 9(2), pages 209-219, Spring.
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