Why Emotional Appeals Sometimes Backfire
The immigration issue is personally important to me. I was surprised to read an article in The New York Times a few years ago about a group that was decidedly anti-immigration. People who themselves had successfully immigrated to the U.S. Many made excuses for the harsh conditions that immigrants have to face trying to come into the U.S. through the southern border. It wasn’t so long ago that these same people were in similar situations.
It made me realize that this had broader implications about the way we talk to people about a range of missions that nonprofits serve.
The way that we communicate with our constituents is important. It requires that we select different languages to fit what we are trying to convey and the actions that we wish to elicit from them.
One of the tools in our communication tool bag is the “emotional appeal.” Sometimes we want to craft a message that creates an emotional state in our audience. We want the reader to experience empathy for those who would be helped by our organization’s mission. To “feel their pain.” We assume that, in turn, will lead them to act (donate) to relieve the suffering. Psychologists would say that taking action (donating) will reduce the emotional distress that the individual feels when they read your message.
We’ve all seen plenty of examples of emotional narratives that are intended to tug on the heartstrings. They evoke sympathy, outrage, sadness, joy. In targeting our audience, we usually assume that someone who would be particularly sympathetic to another’s need would be someone who had experienced that hardship themselves. Someone who had “walked a mile” in someone else’s shoes would want to lend them a helping hand.
Except — as with the immigrants who oppose giving others sanctuary — it turns out that people don’t.
It may be that they are precisely the wrong people to go to. According to research from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, people who endured and who have overcome a hardship are less likely to show compassion for someone struggling with that same hardship, compared with people with no experience with that particular situation.
Hardships, it turns out, create what are called “empathy gaps.” These gaps refer to the difficulty people have recalling emotional distress once an experience is over.
Researchers looked at the context of unemployment. Participants in the study read about a man who is unable to find work and begins selling drugs. They then answered questions about the level of compassion (or contempt) they felt for him.
People who, themselves, have been unemployed in the past were less likely to show compassion for the man than those who were either currently unemployed or had never been unemployed. Another study that looked at bullying showed similar results. People who had previously been bullied felt less compassion for another who was experiencing being bullied.
As it turns out, the empathy gap forms fast.
One of the researchers commented, “It was surprising to me how quickly you lose access to those memories of your own emotional experience.”
Researchers concluded that it is the combination of people forgetting how painful an experience actually was and the knowledge that they had gotten past it themselves that makes them less empathetic to those who are experiencing difficulties.
These findings are counterintuitive. When participants in the study were asked to predict who would show the most compassion for a bullied teenager, for instance — either a teacher who’d endured bullying himself or one who never had — an overwhelming 99 out of the 112 people chose the teacher who had been bullied. Generally speaking, people may instinctively seek compassion from the very people who are least likely to provide it.
Why does this happen? People who have successfully dealt with an aversive experience know that they were able to overcome it successfully. It makes them feel especially confident about their understanding of just how difficult the situation is. The combined experience of “I can’t recall how difficult it was” and “I know that I got through it myself” creates the perception that the event can be readily conquered, reducing empathy toward others struggling with the situation.
People who’ve gone without a job are more likely to think, if I can get through this and I can find a job, so can you.
As we’ve all experienced, there are lots of people who've been through difficult things who show sympathy and empathy. But what these studies suggest is that going through difficulties often doesn't make us kinder and more compassionate. It has the potential to make us tougher and harsher.
We need to keep this in mind when we talk to people about our missions. And how we might “flip the switch and reignite compassion,” as one of the researchers said.
One thing that might help is to ask people to recall how they were supported by others and did not just rely on their own strength or ability to get through a difficult time.
But we can’t assume that someone who’s experienced homeless will want to help the homeless, that someone who’s experienced an eating disorder will want to help those struggling with the same problem. And how we message them needs to reflect that.
Like everything having to do with the human psyche, it’s complicated.
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.