A new study suggests shame, guilt or incentives are not enough to sustain humanitarian action. 

Recent major earthquakes in Turkiye and Syria have prompted a surge of international support for those affected, but research from Flinders University has found what triggers people to keep providing support for those suffering humanitarian crises.

Their study found that donations to appeals currently being operated by charities such as Red Cross, Save the Children and UNICEF are triggered by mostly emotive responses – but sustained humanitarian action only occurs if people’s personal beliefs are aligned to humanitarian ideals.

“Our findings suggest that using guilt, shame, or the promise of social incentives that motivate people to take part in humanitarian action may work in the short term, but these appear to undermine continued involvement in the long term,” says lead researcher Lisette Yip.

“This has interesting ramifications for the current crises. The recent donations will deliver critical, immediate assistance to those affected in Turkiye and Syria. Yet, at the same time, recovery will take years of rebuilding to restore damaged buildings and communities, and needs sustained support.

“Our research shows that it is only when people are motivated by their personal goals and values aligning with the cause that they take sustained, long-term action. It is autonomous motivation of individuals that drives sustained action, and keeps people motivated to continue providing support to those who are suffering humanitarian crises.”

People engage in humanitarian action - such as donating, signing petitions, attending rallies, or talking to friends and family to raise awareness for the cause - for a range of different reasons, including because they care about the cause and feel that it is consistent with their personal values and beliefs.

However, other reasons can drive people to participate in humanitarian action, particularly in a world where many actions are publicly shared on social media. 

People may feel guilty if they do not take part or feel good about themselves if they do. They may wish to avoid disapproval or gain respect from peers.

The research therefore suggests it does matter why people take humanitarian action.

When people who identified themselves as supporters of efforts to end global poverty were surveyed again a year later, the researchers found that those who were strongly motivated by their personal values and goals became more committed to the cause and were more likely to increase their efforts over time.

By comparison, people whose initial motives were largely to avoid personal consequences or gain rewards, were less likely to continue taking action a year later.

The full study is accessible here.