Ben Carson, Empathy and Fundraising: 'Been There' Doesn't Mean You Care
Imagine that you’ve been experiencing severe headaches. Your doctor orders a battery of tests. Several days later, you anxiously await the results at your doctor’s desk.
“There’s good news and bad news," your doctor says. "The bad news is that you’ve got an operable brain tumor. The good news is that the former chairman of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is available to do the procedure.”
If the FAA guy isn’t qualified to do your brain surgery, what makes people think that Dr. Ben Carson is qualified to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)? Carson advisor Armstrong Williams says that “his life growing up in subsidized housing, growing up in poor communities” is what makes him the right man for the job.
In other words, Williams thought that someone who has experienced a problem and had overcome it will be more empathetic to the struggles of people who find themselves in similar circumstances.
He is very wrong.
Researchers at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and the University of Pennsylvania did a series of studies that demonstrated the opposite:
People who endured a hardship are less likely to show compassion for someone struggling with that same hardship, compared with people with no experience in that particular situation.
The title of the Northwestern empathy study was "When Having ‘Been There’ Doesn’t Mean I Care: When Prior Experience Reduces Compassion for Emotional Distress." The idea that in order to understand someone, you need to “walk a mile in their shoes” doesn’t hold water.
For example, one study looked at compassion and employment/unemployment. Subjects in the experiment read a story about a man who was unable to find work, so he begins to sell drugs to support himself and his family. When surveyed, subjects who had themselves been unemployed “were less likely to show compassion for the man than those who were either currently unemployed or had never been unemployed.”
This pattern was repeated across a number of different scenarios. Another study looked at bullying. People who had previously been bullied showed less compassion for people who were failing to cope successfully with bullying.
Researchers coined the term “empathy gap” to describe their findings.
These empathy gaps refer to how difficult it is for people to remember emotional distress once the situation is over. Researchers blame the empathy gap on a combination of people forgetting how difficult the particular situation they overcame actually was, plus the fact that they were able to overcome it themselves. And it happens fast. One researcher commented, “It was surprising to me how quickly you lose access to those memories of your own emotional experience.”
All of this is counterintuitive. What the studies suggest is that overcoming traumatic situations often doesn’t make us kinder and more compassionate. It can have the opposite effect, making us callous and harsher.
An important aspect of nonprofit fundraising is appealing to people’s empathy for others. The takeaway from this research is that the dynamics involved are complicated. Certain situations can be a roadblock to marshaling support. Targeting a certain demographic—because that demographic experienced something you are trying to cure or fix—may not be your best bet.
And in the case of HUD, it turns out neither Carson’s career as a neurosurgeon nor his modest background qualifies him for the job. He will, according to the research, lack empathy in addition to skills.
Katrina VanHuss is the CEO of Turnkey, a U.S.-based strategy and execution firm for nonprofit fundraising campaigns. Katrina has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded the company. Turnkey’s clients include most of the top thirty U.S. peer-to-peer campaigns — Susan G. Komen, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the ALS Association, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as well as some international organizations, like UNICEF.
Otis Fulton is a psychologist who joined Turnkey in 2013 as its consumer behavior expert. He works with clients to apply psychological principles to fundraising. He is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit messaging. He has written campaigns for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, The March of Dimes, the USO and dozens of other organizations.
Now as a married couple, Katrina and Otis almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism, and human decision-making – much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P, Peer to Peer Forum, and others. They write a weekly column for NonProfit PRO and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising." They live in Richmond, Virginia, USA.