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The identifiable victim effect is the tendency of individuals to offer greater aid when a specific, identifiable person ("victim") is observed under hardship, as compared to a large, vaguely defined group with the same need.
The identifiable victim effect has two components. People are more inclined to help an identified victim than an unidentified one, and people are more inclined to help a single victim than a group of victims. Although helping an identified victim may be commendable, the identifiable victim effect is considered a cognitive bias. From a consequentialist point of view, the cognitive error is the failure to offer N times as much help to N unidentified victims.
The identifiable victim effect has a mirror image that is sometimes called the identifiable perpetrator effect. Research has shown that individuals are more inclined to mete out punishment, even at their own expense, when they are punishing a specific, identified perpetrator.
Concrete images and representations are often more powerful sources of persuasion than are abstract statistics. For example, Ryan White contracted HIV at age 13 and had the disease until his death six years later. Following his death, the US congress passed the Ryan White Care Act, which funded the largest set of services for people living the AIDS in the country.
Historical figures from Joseph Stalin to Mother Teresa and pop cultural figures such as Matthew McConaughey and Muhammad Ali are credited with statements that epitomize the identifiable victim effect. The remark "One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic" is widely, although probably incorrectly, attributed to Stalin. The remark "If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will," is attributed to Mother Teresa.