Waylaid Dialectic

January 9, 2020

Why do people care more about fires in Australia than floods in Indonesia

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:03 am

A journalist emailed asking why fires in Australia seemed to be eliciting so much more concern than equivalent disasters, like the current Indonesian floods. In preparing to respond, I’ve been typing notes, based on my understanding of an evolving body or research (not my area, but close to one which I do specialise in: public opinion about aid). I’d like to think about this more. And it seems a pity not to save these notes somewhere. So here they are:

If we’re talking about Australians themselves donating more to a domestic disaster, this isn’t surprising: people tend to show greater concern for their compatriots than for people in other countries.

But we’ve also got the question of international donations flooding in. Why is the world paying so much attention to Australia and not to crises elsewhere?

Research shows the most important driver of donations to disasters is media coverage. If a disaster receives high-profile media coverage, which emphasises tragedy, donations go up. This begs the question: what drives media coverage? Often media coverage is determined by the magnitude of the disaster. Sometimes magnitude will simply be the number of people killed, but in the case of the bushfires, I think it’s fair to say coverage has been boosted by things like the intense visual imagery (plumes of smoke, firestorms), as well as the tales of heroism and tragedy. The bushfires are a telegenic catastrophe.

On top of this, people’s desire to donate is influenced by something called the “identifiable victim effect”. People are more likely to respond to descriptions or images of individual suffering than to facts and figures. We’ve had many poignant examples of individual tragedy in the Australian Bushfires. Firefighters killed in their trucks. People who have died defending their homes. People are affected by these sorts of stories. It motivates them to donate.

Speculatively, it seems to me that Australia’s charismatic fauna have also contributed to international concern – the suffering of Kangaroos and Koalas, animals that are international icons, appears to be capturing attention.

Then there’s the question of norms: people are more likely to donate if they know people around them are donating. As a result, you get cascades of concern at times. High profile campaigns from celebrities often boost donations from ordinary people. With the bushfires it’s likely these campaigns have also boosted involvement from other celebrities. One high profile campaign has spawned another. Quite possibly this has been facilitated through social media networks.

One final point: the Australian Bush Fires are a so-called natural disaster – they don’t involve a war – in general, studies show people are more inclined to donate to natural disasters than to those that they see as having a human cause, such as conflict.

My comments aren’t normative. I’m not talking about right or wrong. I’m not commenting on the way the world should be. These are simply descriptions of the way it currently is.

1 Comment

  1. This is fascinating, Terence – thanks.

    I know this area of research not at all, but allow me to speculate on one more cause that you have not discussed for why the bushfires are dominating our charitable consciences. Perhaps you will know of some research on this, or have some other comment.

    The idea is that we have very few occasions of mass community belonging nowadays, occasions where we come together in unity and in so doing strengthen the fairly tenuous bonds between people within a nation or indeed across (western) nations. We don’t all belong to the same church or all believe in a Christian God, we’re (I think) less nationalistic than we used to be, we don’t gather in public in cinemas or pubs with such a large cross-section of society as we once might have, or care about the same sports or music.

    We’re at risk of splintering apart, so we latch onto selected events as occasions for renewal of our bonds. And for rejection of outsiders who fail to demonstrate their belonging to the tribe – people like you who ask uncomfortable questions and don’t knit koala socks in your spare time, presumably because you hate animals and country folk.

    I have heard it said that despite the splintering of musical tastes and the incredible range of music we can now access, our musical megastars dominate listening as much or more than ever, one reason perhaps being that a shared appreciation of a pop song is one of those thin threads we grasp at to keep ourselves loosely bound together. In fact, perhaps I read this in reference to the insane popularity of “Avengers” films (but I can’t find the link). Every now and then, we just agree on something – anything, just a thing – that we all want to talk about to reassure ourselves that we are all people who care about the same things.

    Bushfires are the latest thing, or rather, there are too many disasters to come together over all of them, so we save our hand-wringing and tears for those that serve a community bonding goal too. That does not answer the precise question you posed, about why we care more about Australian disasters than Indonesian ones, but I think you’ve already answered that pretty thoroughly.

    Comment by Tim Helm — January 10, 2020 @ 6:04 am

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