Back to the Biases: The Identifiable Victim

Back to the Biases: The Identifiable Victim March 8, 2019

by Cindy Kunsman

Remember this journey started in the summer of 2016? There is still so much to be said on the subject of cognitive biases (a.k.a., Craino-Rectal Inversions).

This past month, when I mentioned this NLQ post about Jim Bakker, I ended up discussing my past history of sending money to him with a friend who knew all about the last days of Heritage USA, Bakker’s headquarters for the Inspirational Network. It was after the Jessica Hahn business came to light but before the news of the gross negligence of the Bakkers’ finances hit the airwaves. In my house, my parents blamed Hahn for being a ‘slut,’ and they also had given a great deal of money to Bakker. And I ended up doing so, too.

Bakker claimed that he was building a home for disabled children who lacked means to live a good enough life, and he started a huge campaign for what he called “Kevin’s House.” Kevin Whittum was a disabled teenager who was wheelchair bound whom Bakker used on his PTL show to raise funds. I’m numbered among the contributors who gave more than three million dollars to support the cause. I blame my on the solidarity that my parents expected from me to support Bakker, and also on my gullibility when I came home from working night shift during my first months as an RN. (I learned quickly that I could not watch any shows begging for money, nor could I watch infomercials. Ha, ha, ha!) My parents were always willing to throw credulity out the window for ministers who had fallen into sin, all too willing to forgive all too much, in my opinion. Kevin was evicted from the facility when Bakker’s empire crashed, and while searching for references, I learned of his death.

Quite akin to the survivorship bias, Kevin who was exploited by Bakker serves as an excellent example of the identifiable victim bias. As the title suggests, we identify with the victim and feel great compassion for them because we are given a tremendous amount of information about them. In so doing, we lose our objectivity about the degree of their need. I thought of my patients at work who had so many needs that I could not meet, but I could come home and give money to this cause that made me feel like was part of something more significant that my job seemed to me at the time. I could light a candle to fight the darkness of need. (I gave to make myself feel better.)

We become so moved by the plight of one victim of whom we know a great deal that we tend to neglect other causes or whole groups of individuals with much greater and more dire needs. We come to feel that we know the identifiable victim and have some sense of a connection to them, so we become more easily moved to give to their cause.

The identifiable victim puts a face and lends an identity to a whole population of people of people who otherwise get lost in obscurity among so many others. The bias plays on our emotions and our compassion, and that isn’t always a bad thing. It does, however, make us far less objective about the wisest use of our money and how effectively we can use it to stem the tide of suffering and loss. It introduces a human factor into the discussion of abstract ideas without us realizing that we have been so deeply influenced.

This lesson has come at a high fiduciary cost for me, and I would see it played out many times over since those first days in my profession. While I’d rather be played as a chump for having a kind heart and a generous spirit, it’s not the safest way to go through life. I would come across many more identifiable victims, and I still try to navigate around them, especially when they are money driven for money’s sake.

I’ve learned also that just because others suffer doesn’t mean that my needs should be neglected in favor of helping someone else. Self-care and self-love changed my process of decision making in this area of life, too. Like everything else, those kind of decisions require critical thought because there are no hard and fast rules that make them easier. I do best if I take my time and evaluate prudent courses of action, especially if I’m swayed emotionally by someone else’s need. While it isn’t always easy and doesn’t come as naturally to me, I’ve learned to be careful which makes me safer in the long run.

It’s just another gift of self-awareness on the journey away from the knee-jerk giving that I watched my family model.


For Further Reading:

Cynthia Mullen Kunsman is a nurse (BSN), naturopath (ND) and seminary graduate (MMin) with a wide variety of training and over 20 years of clinical experience. She has used her training in Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a lecturer and liaison to professional scientific and medical groups, in both academic and traditional clinical healthcare settings. She also completed additional studies in the field of thought reform, hypnotherapy for pain management, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is often associated with cultic group involvement. Her nursing experience ranges from intensive care, the training of critical care nurses, hospice care, case management and quality management, though she currently limits her practice to forensic medical record review and evaluation. Most of her current professional efforts concern the study of manipulative and coercive evangelical Christian groups and the recovery process from both thought reform and PTSD.

She blogs at Under Much Grace and Redeeming Dinah.

Read more by Cindy Kunsman

If I’m Never Ready, I Can at Least be Wise


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • SAO

    You should plan your charitable giving, both how much and to what causes and organizations. If you respond to emotional appeals, you’ll be put on a calling list and get call after call asking for more and more.

    You should always check the rating of the organization with a reputable organization, like Charity Watch. The reason is that often charities are started by people who are passionate about and deeply knowledgeable about a problem — but those are not attributes that imply good financial skills. If the organization is struggling to raise or steward money well, they will never say so. They will think ‘this cause is so important, and we’ll do better now.’ Raising lots of money is hard. The easiest way to do it is to hire professionals who often take a big cut. Ben Carson’s presidential campaign was very effective at fund-raising, but they paid 46% of funds raised in fund-raising expenses. That’s an extreme example, but you want no more than 15% of your hard-earned money to go to fund-raising or administration, as opposed to the cause you are supporting.

    For an organization outsourcing fund-raising to an organization like the one raising money for Carson, they might feel getting a lot more money for their work is more important than more efficiently using your money.

    So, that’s an issue that can come up with organizations run by committed people devoted to their cause. Then there are the charlatans, who make themselves rich by preying on the charity of good people. Sometimes, it’s a bit accidental. A local, small wreath-making business had the idea of starting a charity to supply wreaths to veterans’ graves, to boost their business. They thought it would be like people buying a few cans of soup for the homeless shelter at the grocery store.
    They got a contract with a veterans’ cemetery and then with many veterans’ cemeteries. Soon, the charity was far bigger than their business, but they continued to buy all the wreaths from themselves, making quite a profit. Needless to say, the management of a small charity handling a few wreaths is very different from the management of a charity with a number of large government contracts. At the local level, if a business says, ‘buy a wreath for a veteran,’ you pretty much understand they are making the wreath and making a profit, unless they explicitly saynthey are not. At a national level, it’s self-dealing.

  • I do that now, but I certainly didn’t do that then. I gave with a pure heart, and the poor little guy did gain some benefit from the whole affair. His family sued to get some of the money that was donated to him for his care.

    The homeless man on the street corner had infinitely more worth than I did in my understanding then. I was busy earning my right to live and breathe on this planet (and to live in my parents’ home).

    My parents watched me empty my checking account three different times while I lived there with them before I married. It was seen as a virtuous thing. What did come back to hurt me deeply is that the ministries that I gave so much to after I left my cult were ones who helped establish the whole Patriarchy/Quiverfull mess which is why I started blogging. I’d given them means to propagate this madness, not realizing what it was or what it would turn into. My parents never talked about the concerns that they aided and abetted Bakker, and I would have done well to hear it. When my turn came to face the consequences of what I’d supported, I could not walk away from the discussion. I owed it to everyone and to God to tell as many people as I could about thought reform and spiritual abuse — particularly that variety that I’d supported. I was ignorant, but not innocent.

  • Brian Curtis

    I’m numbered among the contributors who gave more than three million dollars to support the cause.

    Either you’re incredibly generous, or I’m reading that wrong.

    Anyway, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having empathy for the suffering of others and wanting to help. SAO below is right that you should always check out a charity before donating, though, because that’s exactly what scammers rely on. The fact that they’re not only deceiving people but exploiting sick kids, of course, makes them far worse than people who don’t care one way or the other… and that they do so in the name of Jesus just makes them even more vile.

    Just don’t let the existence of scammers sour you on showing compassion for your fellow man and lead you to reject ALL charities.

  • Jen (*.*)

    I’ve always been incredibly sensitive, so the emotional appeals always hit me hard.

    The whole Christian factor puts people in a more vulnerable position, I believe. You have a person you trust endorsing something, you hear that you “can’t outgive God” (implying that you’re covered even if you spend your last dime), and if you feel “a tug” that’s God telling you to give. No manipulation there…

    I sound like a cynic now. It took me a long time to see through the crap.

  • yeah, I’m on an amphiboly roll lately. If I had it to give, I likely would have.

    I’m glad that you echo that here — I noted it above. Being moved with compassion is not always a bad thing, and it does help us make a personal connection with a need. I’ve talked with Suzanne about this in the past. It would be easy to say, “I’m not ever going to give to anyone again.” That’s not a solution to the problem. We need to have dynamic boundaries and saying “never again” builds an impenetrable wall. Those aren’t healthy either.

    Your comment drives home the greater message that makes consideration of cognitive biases so important. There is no way to circumvent the hard work of thinking or the difficulty that we face when we actually live our lives dynamically instead of hiding behind rules. We lose our humanity, for one. And we also run the risk of being duped.

    We are never going to free ourselves of cognitive bias, but we can be wise about knowing who we are, where are weak points lie, and we can take better care of ourselves through that process. I was not taught to do so, and it’s a harder skill to learn as an adult, and the consequences are greater.

  • I wrote a few years ago in a blog post here explaining that the innocent as a dove stuff came so easily, but it is harder work for me to master the wisdom of a serpent. But we need both if we are to live safely in this world. A dove is a creature of sacrifice. A snake is a predator, looking for prey. There’s a time and a place for both innocence and wise planning and safety. We just have to be smart about when, how, and with whom we will be the dove. That’s the key.

    I’m glad that I gave, and at the time, my heart was piqued. I wasn’t destitute, and I didn’t go without anything. The little guy was a joy to watch on the TV when I rolled in just a bit after 8Am to gear down to go to sleep. And if God is God, He knows all about my motive and my heart.

    We always run the risk of getting fleeced. The people who are the best at it go undetected. And I’m willing to take the risk now and again. I don’t think you sound like a cynic at all, Jen. 😉

  • therealcie

    After my maternal grandmother’s death, we learned that she had given away a great deal of her money to televangelist charlatans. My grandmother was not a stupid person, but she had very little education, low self-esteem, and had been indoctrinated from a young age into a fire-and-brimstone belief system. I read one of the letters sent to her by Oral Roberts which said something like: “Dear Mrs. B, only generous donations from good people like you can allow me to continue my work to prevent Satan from destroying the world.” After reading that helping of bullshit, I certainly wanted to bring the fire and brimstone to Oral Roberts, Jerry Fallwell, and the rest of their ilk.

  • Friend

    Slightly OT, but medical patients get “invited” to help raise research money for their own diseases all the time.

    The patient’s legitimate job is to survive and recover, not to become a donor, fund raiser, volunteer, or the face of a disease. Medical staff, research organizations, and friends need to be far more sensitive about piling a guilt trip on some poor person who’s afraid of dying. After people recover, they will be much more able to figure out how much time and money they want to give.

  • I believe that Kevin had a bone disease, but I don’t know if those details were ever disclosed or whether I missed them when I fell asleep after a shift! His needs were not curative, but he needed ongoing supportive care. Those are legitimate needs, and caregivers do need respite. People seem to have a six month period of grace that they give to the chronically ill, but after that, they run out of patience and expect the person to “get over it.”

    Caregivers get burned out and need help, and support for chronic illness poses a worthy need that is just as important. There’s nothing wrong with supporting a cause, and I don’t regret giving to Kevin. I regret that he was used by Bakker to solicit funds, and his promises of a life of support fell flat when Bakker did. That, I regret.

    I didn’t give to PTL until the Kevin thing, but I think that it was also part of my own reactance response over how I was troubled by my parents’ response to Jessica Hahn. I came home from college on Thursday nights to work, and I walked in one evening to Bakker on Larry King. My mother had some choice words to say about Jessica, hanging the whole weight of the matter on her and not Bakker (the adult minister with a greater moral burden). But Reactance is yet another cognitive bias, soon to come.

  • If we only had the means and the power to do away with all need and suffering… It’s all bad, and all such problems, acute, chronic, and palliative care at the end of life are all just as significant to society. We do what we can. And as there will always be someone to exploit others for money, we will always have those around us who will turn human need into an opportunity for their own gain and extravagance.

  • My great grandmother who had been an indentured servant in Britain used to crawl on her hands and knees to climb stairs because of terrible arthritis in her old age. She once told my mother that if they ever had any extra money, she would send it to Oral Roberts to get healed as if it was something she could buy. I’m glad that she didn’t.

  • Catherine Flusche-Gillikin

    Unfortunately, there are many folks on the economic right who are so immune to identifiable victim bias that they oppose all aid on the grounds that it’s rooted in emotion rather than fact. Their feeling is that if there’s *any* possibility of abuse of the system or failure to help everyone, the money shouldn’t be wasted.

  • Saraquill

    I have to be careful myself when I get phone solicitations to give to this (secular) charity or that. Yes, It’s only $10 a month. If I gave to every “$10 a month” charity that asked, I’d have nothing left to support myself.

  • Saraquill

    Not a charity, but are you familiar with the Fyre Festival? Cognitive bias in the form of clever marketing and a cult of personality fleeced customers out of thousands of dollars in ticket fees, and employees out of weeks’ worth of wages.

  • I’ll look it up unless you have a link you could post without much trouble. (I’m guessing that it’s easy to find.).

  • Good point. That’s what I’d call a wall and not a healthy boundary.

    When we get out of these high demand patriarchy groups, we have no healthy boundaries anymore — provided we had any to begin with. We lose our humanity when we close ourselves off from the suffering in the world. And add to that all of the angry, young erzatz Calvinists like Doug Wilson who think that those who are ill afflicted have been chosen to suffer based on some merit system that they know nothing of but are earmarked for punishment, both temporal and eternal.

    But totalist groups think in terms of black and white. Everything is all good or all bad with no shades of grey in between. Those are walls that are static. They are more worried about keeping themselves unsullied than they are with caring for those who suffer, regardless of whether they are ‘elect’ or not. They save all of the benefits of God for the people who are already in their camp. (I just can’t cope with that kind of view of life or people.)

  • Friend

    Agreed. To be clear, I’m not just talking about putting Kevin on TV to raise $3 million for a house that did not meet fire code.

    I’m also talking about obscure everyday patients answering the door to see a neighbor saying, “Hi! Since you have Disease X, I’m sure you’ll want to give to Disease X research.” Or a nurse handing a patient a Disease X Survivor t-shirt and inviting him/her to wheel through the 5K next weekend.

    Don’t get me wrong. Fund raising is great. Patients are thankful for research. But folks can be very insensitive, assuming that every patient has the ability and desire to be an advocate. I think this comes partly from seeing patients on TV.

  • Brian Curtis,
    My husband has enjoyed teasing me about my amphiboly. I usually dangle participles. He just asked me if I was going to wear proper PJs tonight or whether an elephant ran off with them. That’s my favorite Groucho Marx example of the error. ;). Maybe I can blame it on Accelerated Christian Education, but I was only subjected to it for four years.

  • Saraquill
  • zizania

    It’s really hard when you own a small business. We’re sitting ducks for charities and community groups looking for donations.