11/07/2014 06:04 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2015

Understand Human Nature, Protect Human Rights

"In Norway? What?!"

That's how people reacted when they heard that a 12-year-old Norwegian girl, Thea, wrote a series of blog posts about how she was about to wed a 37-year-old man named Geir. The reaction in Norway was insane. A national petition against child marriage was launched to stop the wedding, the local police got endless furious calls and countless citizens demonstrated in Oslo's streets.

As it turned out, Thea did not get married. She rejected her groom-to-be in front of the hundreds of infuriated Norwegians who had shown up at the church. Then, a young Bangladeshi girl called Shahida took the stage to talk about her own real-world experience almost being forced into child marriage by her parents.

In fact, the whole thing was a part of a campaign run by Plan Norway, an anti-child bride organization. Even so, the angelic looking blond girl's wedding attracted the world's attention.


Sure, Norway is a progressive country and therefore the news was shocking. But Thea wouldn't have been the first young girl forced to quit school to become a bride. She would have been just one of the 39,000 girls who share the burden of child marriage every day.

What conclusions can be drawn from this story?

Even the most altruistic among us is concerned with what is immediately surrounding and affecting us: A family member, a friend, a neighbor, a compatriot -- anyone who is close to us or looks like us. Even though most of us are aware that widespread and serious abuses of children happen everyday in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa, it is difficult for us to identify with these victims. We can't help but be affected by the distance, the gap that the unknown creates.

Perhaps subconsciously, we often find ourselves trapped in an "us-and-them" framework, "them" being the abused children of developing countries and "us" being "Westerners." In Thea's case, this framework doesn't apply since Thea is part of the "us." She is one of us. She could be your niece, your daughter or the little girl next door because she looks like somebody you know. Therefore, you are spontaneously moved to help. Like it or not, that's human nature.

Plan Norway understood that human tendency and that's why their campaign was so effective. Here is their recipe: Take a fake story involving a local victim. Attract people's attention. Shock them. Then, focus their empathy on helping real victims around the world.

The campaign managed to channel people's empathy for Thea's false marriage into real cases in the world. That's what renowned psychologist, Paul Ekman, calls "compassionate empathy," the type of empathy where you not only understand and share the other's feelings but where you are also moved to help. This is contrary to cognitive empathy, where you are simply aware of how someone is feeling, or "emotional empathy", where you feel what the other person is feeling--like when you watch a documentary about child brides and get affected, but without taking action by making a donation or sponsoring a child.

"Compassionate empathy" is what the advocates for any cause want to ignite in their supporters. That's also the biggest challenge in advocacy: taking supporters from just caring about a cause to actually doing something about it. It's like pushing a customer who is interested in a product into actually buying it.

Whether you agree with Plan Norway's strategy, one thing remains clear: it worked.

Recently I spoke to Unni Claussen, Communications Advisor at Plan Norway, who told me that although "the main goal for this campaign was not fundraising, but awareness raising and political impact," the organization ended up attracting "3,400 new girl sponsors" who will give approximately "$22.5 million to our work in our 50 program countries over the next 15 years." She also added "the political impact in Norway and elsewhere has also been of significance. Our Prime Minister Erna Solberg supported the campaign on BBC and in the Norwegian press. She has become a clear spokesperson during the campaign in the fight against child marriage. After the campaign, 91 percent of the Norwegian population say in a poll that it urges the government to take a lead in the global fight against child marriage. "

91 percent? That's a dizzying number...

To me, their success can be explained by three factors:

a) You were surprised. It doesn't happen every day that a 12-year-old Norwegian girl creates a blog about her impending wedding.

b) You were shocked. First, you got shocked because Norway has one of the best human rights records in the world. Then, you were shocked when they announced that the whole story was fake. Finally, you were shocked because even if the wedding was fake, Thea actually did walk down the aisle in her dramatically oversized wedding dress.

c) Fake it until you make it. Introducing real, important stories into a shocking but fake story works. The hundreds of people who came to Thea's mock wedding ended up hearing Shahida speak about the impossible realities that real child brides face every day.

If only the champions of every just cause understood human nature as well as Plan Norway did...