We give more to a drought victim than a war victim because we suspect the latter may be partly to blame for their plight, the authors say.
It could explain why the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami sparked a huge response but the Darfur appeal received less.
The study was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.
“These conclusions are borne out by our experience,” said Brendan Paddy of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), a UK body that co-ordinates aid appeals.
“Appeals for a humanitarian disaster arising from conflict tend to get significantly less response than natural events.”
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In the study, the psychologists invented a fictitious famine.
They then told test groups the famine was caused either by a “drought” or “armed conflict” and invited them to contribute to an appeal for funds.
People routinely gave more to the victims of the “drought” because when they saw victims of a man-made disaster they tended to think they must have something to do with their plight, the authors concluded.
This response was due to a “blame game” based on what was known as the “just world belief”, said lead author Hanna Zagefka of the Royal Holloway, University of London.
Under this belief, she said, we all wanted to think the world was fair and just, “because the alternative could mean that all sorts of random and horrible things could happen to us”.
“In this fair and just world that we want, the innocent do not suffer,” Ms Zagefka said.
“So if we see someone suffering, we assume they can’t be completely innocent – this is the way we defend our belief in a just world.”
In the case of famine caused by conflict, we might subconsciously think that the victims were somehow complicit, the researchers said.
But in a natural disaster, they added, our instinct told us the story was simple – the earthquake struck, or the huge wave arrived, and it could not be the fault of the victims.
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