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

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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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."

4-year-old New Zealand boy and police share toys.

Sometimes the adorableness of small children is almost too much to take.

According to the New Zealand Police, a 4-year-old called the country's emergency number to report that he had some toys for them—and that's only the first cute thing to happen in this story.

After calling 111 (the New Zealand equivalent to 911), the preschooler told the "police lady" who answered the call that he had some toys for her. "Come over and see them!" he said to her.

The dispatcher asked where he was, and then the boy's father picked up. He explained that the kids' mother was sick and the boy had made the call while he was attending to the other child. After confirming that there was no emergency—all in a remarkably calm exchange—the call was ended. The whole exchange was so sweet and innocent.

But then it went to another level of wholesome. The dispatcher put out a call to the police units asking if anyone was available to go look at the 4-year-old's toys. And an officer responded in the affirmative as if this were a totally normal occurrence.

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