THE BLOG
10/28/2014 11:23 am ET Updated Dec 28, 2014

Why Aren't We Giving More to Charities Fighting Ebola?

I was wondering yesterday why I haven't made a donation to fighting Ebola. It seems I am not the only one.

Americans tend to give generously when disaster strikes, but we've been slow to donate to organizations battling this disease. Even well publicized donations from Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and most recently, $100 million from Paul Allen haven't quite galvanized us.

That might change, now that another American has been diagnosed, and the governors of New York and New Jersey are grabbing headlines with their call to quarantine health care workers returning from treating Ebola patients.

But it won't change if bickering, despair and fear continue to dominate the headlines--and our own emotions.

Several factors have muted our giving response to the Ebola crisis. The first is its complexity. One reason we give so quickly after natural disasters is that we get it. We see pictures of rubble where houses once stood or flood waters racing down streets and we instantly understand the problem and what needs to be done -- people need temporary shelter and emergency supplies and then homes and schools and towns need to be rebuilt. We are safe, and we know we can help.

It has been far less clear what we can do about Ebola. We hear about how many people are dying. We hear there is no cure. Until recently, we heard very little about how doctors are treating the disease and potential vaccines. The stories and pictures have been grim and scary.

And that's another reason. It seems counterintuitive, but negative emotions such as fear and despair typically don't spur us to give.

Humans are wired in a way that makes us feel good when we give, but also to give when we think it will make us feel good. We give more when we feel positive emotions than we do if we feel negative ones.

A study last year in the Journal of Neuroscience described the "identifiable victim effect," which refers to our tendency to give to identifiable victims rather than anonymous ones. A photo of a person is more likely to prompt us to donate than a photo of a large group or the number of total victims.

Here is the trick: that photo must also elicit positive emotions in us. The smiling face of a child is more likely to encourage us to give than the face of someone who is suffering.

Charities know the importance of putting a face on issues in order to build a connection with people. Most have learned the power of storytelling. But in this crisis, the stories that make us feel hopeful and helpful have been few. Of course, organizations working to fight Ebola have more pressing activities than marketing and storytelling. I don't want to diminish their efforts or their work.

But I wanted to highlight one of those hopeful stories. Doctors without Borders, one of the premier groups on the frontlines of this battle, and a group that has lost some of its own to the disease, has an inspiring story on its site of a woman who has recovered from Ebola and is now counseling other patients. It is great story. It has a great picture. It worked for me.