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.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.