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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