The bizarre human tendency that made 'Baby Jessica' a household name in 1987

Humans. We're an odd species.

In 1987, 18-month-old Jessica McClure gained worldwide fame after falling into a well in Midland, Texas.

"Baby Jessica" was lodged 22 feet underground in a well casing just eight inches wide. The delicate 58-hour rescue effort had people all over the world glued to their TVs.


Thankfully, she survived the ordeal with a few scars and having lost just one small toe. In the weeks after her rescue, Jessica's family received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations for her care and future.

How did a story about one small-town child become a global phenomenon?

Certainly the 'round-the-clock media coverage played a role. But according to behavioral economist Dan Ariely, there was more to it than that.

He notes that Jessica's story received more coverage and attention than either the Rwandan genocide or the war in Darfur. And the Pew Research Center ranks her story among those garnering the highest media interest over the last several decades.

That brings us to this question:

It's called the Identifiable Victim Effect.

Ariely explains:

"You would expect that as more lives are at stake, we would care more. Maybe in a linear relationship."

"Or maybe we'd care more in the beginning, and there'll be kind of a diminishing return."

"But it turns out the function is different. We care a lot about individual life, and we care less and less as the pie, as the number of people become bigger."

Basically, we're more able to empathize with specific victims than with larger groups of victims...

...even if the need of both the individual case and the larger set of cases is exactly the same. Take child hunger, for example. Ariely cites a study in which participants were asked to make decisions based on two scenarios:

We're more responsive to emotional appeals than we are to statistical appeals.

Those findings confirmed something we already knew but suspected for much longer. They evoke the famous words of two historical icons with arguably little else in common:

Stalin was likely quoting German writer Kurt Tucholsky.

Ariely says it's all in our heads:

"It turns out that every time you activate cognition, calculation, thoughtfulness, you turn off the emotion. People care less and give much less."

But this information isn't just important for fundraising. It's something any do-gooder would do well to be more aware of.

Let's not let emotion (or intellect) get in the way of doing the most good we can for the world.

If you found this interesting, check out Ariely's full talk below:

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Courtesy of Macy's

In many ways, 18-year-old Idaho native, Hank Cazier, is like any other teenager you've met. He loves chocolate, pop music, and playing games with his family. He has lofty dreams of modeling for a major clothing company one day. But one thing that sets him apart may also jeopardize his future is his recent battle against a brain tumor.

Cazier was diagnosed in 2015. When he had surgery to remove the tumor, he received trauma to his brain and lost some of his motor functionality. He's been in physical, occupational, and speech therapy ever since. The experience impacted Cazier's confidence and self-esteem, so he's been looking for a way to build himself back up again.

"I wanted to do something that helped me look forward to the future," he says.

Enter Make-A-Wish, a nonprofit organization that grants wishes for children battling critical illnesses, providing them a chance to make the impossible possible. The organization partnered with Macy's to raise awareness and help make those wishes a reality. The hope is that the "wish effect" will improve their quality of life and empower them with the strength they need to overcome these illnesses and look towards the future. That was a particularly big deal for Cazier, who had been feeling like so many of his wishes weren't going to be possible because of his critical illness.

"In the beginning, it was hard to accept that it would be improbable for me to accomplish my previous goals because my illness took away so many of my physical abilities," says Cazier. His wish of becoming a model also seemed out of reach.

But Macy's and Make-A-Wish didn't see it like that. Once they learned about Cazier's wish, they knew he had to make it come true by inviting him to be part of the magical Macy's holiday shoot in New York.

Courtesy of Macy's

Make-A-Wish can't fulfill children's wishes without the generosity of donors and partners like Macy's. In fact, since 2003, Macy's has given more than $122 million to Make-A-Wish and impacted the lives of more than 2.9 million people.

Cazier's wish experience was beyond what he could've imagined, and it filled him with so much joy and confidence. "It is like waking up and discovering that you have super powers. It feels amazing!" he exclaims.

One of the best parts about the day for him was the kindness everyone who helped make it happen showed him.

"The employees of Macy's and Make-A-Wish made me feel welcome, warm, and cared for," he says. "I am truly grateful that even though they were busy doing their jobs, they were able to show kindness and compassion towards me in all of the little details."

He also got to spend part of the shoot outdoors, which, as someone who loves climbing, hiking, and scuba-diving but has trouble doing those activities now, was very welcome.

Courtesy of Macy's

Overall, Cazier feels he grew a lot during his modeling wish and is now emboldened to work towards a better quality of life. "I want to acquire skills that help me continue to improve in these circumstances," he says.

You can change the lives of more kids like Cazier just by writing a letter to Santa and dropping it in the big red letterbox at Macy's (you can also write and submit one online). For every letter received before Dec. 24, 2019, Macy's will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish, up to $1 million. By writing a letter to Santa, you can help a child replace fear with confidence, sadness with joy, and anxiety with hope.

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