Why We Help One Person, But Won’t Help Many?


“One man’s death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic.”- Joseph Stalin.

This article is going to discuss why we tend to help individuals rather than groups. Let’s begin with a short story:

Jessica McClure gained worldwide attention when she was at her age of 18 months after she fell into the abandoned water well at her aunt’s house. In a duration of 58 hours, the rescuers never stopped their progress of saving her and this brought everyone together, including oil drillers, neighbors and reporters. In the aftermath of this incident, Jessica’s family was donated more than 700,000 dollar and her incident was later turned into a TV movie called “Everybody’s baby: The Rescue of Jessica McClure“.

Alright, let’s think about this: Why this incident gains more media coverage than the 800,000 victims of the genocide in Rwanda, 1994? Why we can stop what we are doing and transfer money to the needy individual while we don’t have greater intention to act in other tragedies that involves more victims? Are we more reluctant to help in the tragedy when more and more victims are involved? The following paragraphs might reveal some truths of what drives our behaviour and it might induce some depressing thoughts.


If we get familiar with the personal information or have a picture of the sufferer / victim, we empathize with them and feel for them. Hence, if the information is not individualized, most of us fail to send help  and less likely to show empathy to them.

It’s common to have our newspaper featuring some families or individual asking for donation due to their economic difficulties or expensive surgery fees and this method undoubtedly is successful in driving people to donate money to the needy individuals.


In Psychology, there is a term called “closeness” which refers to our proximity to the victims. It doesn’t mean the physical distance / nearness, in fact, it means the feeling of kinship. Compared to vast majority of victims who are suffering from a disaster, we feel closer to our relative, friend or family who are in trouble.


The information of the victim needs to be clear and vivid. If we get the full picture of the victim or we witness the event (eg: the victim was in the house on fire, we might act immediately.) Put yourself in a different situation, if I tell you someone who is drowning in the river, it might not powerful enough to drive you to help compared to the situation if you see someone drowning in front of you.


“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at one, I will.” – Mother Teresa

Facing the issue that involves a large population (eg: poverty in a poor country), we feel discouraged easily and tempted not to care / help because our personal involvement is not great enough to make a big change or completely help to solve the problem. We tend to ask, “What is the point to help if we can’t solve the problem completely?”


“Whoever saves a life, it’s considered as if he saved an entire world.”

It’s quite sad to know that, most of us are inclined to act / behave in this way, respond to individual who needs help but not to a vast majority of victims. Yet, we can still trick or alter our thoughts to drive us help the larger group. Eg: you hear about hundred of people killed in the earthquake, try to think in this way: there is a small guy who dreams of becoming a scientist. Thinking in this way activates our emotions and triggers our helping behaviour.

If you want to know more about this, do check the book “The Upside of Irrationality” by Dan Ariely.

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Gary Yap
Hailing from Sandakan, Sabah (The Land Below the Wind), Gary Yap has developed a keen interest in psychology and mental health issues ever since he was 15 years old. After receiving a Bachelor’s Degree of Psychology in HELP University, he volunteered at the Psychiatric Department of Duchess of Kent Hospital and worked as a para-counsellor at a private psychiatric clinic. He later completed his Master’s in Clinical Psychology at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. During his training in becoming a clinical psychologist, Gary was professionally trained at the Health Psychology Clinic, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia; the Psychiatry Department, in Hospital Kajang; and the Psychiatry Department in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Medical Centre. Gary is currently a clinical psychologist associate at SOLS Health and also the director of MY Psychology (Malaysia’s Leading Online Psychology Educational Platform) where he and his team utilized the strength of social media to increase psychological literacy and awareness about mental health issues in the public community. With the motto of “Learn . Share . Apply”, he is striving to build a society where psychology is for everyone.

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