Making a Difference 101: Making an Absolute Difference

Making a Difference 101: Making an Absolute Difference


“It’s just a drop in the ocean.”

This kind of thinking can be discouraging for people who want to help the world, but who feel that their efforts would be futile because the world’s problems are so intimidatingly large.  Unsurprisingly, this leads to many people giving up altogether and not contributing to good causes at all, but it can also lead to people making a smaller difference that only feels larger because they have chosen a smaller problem to tackle.  In other words, feelings of futility can steer you towards making a smaller absolute difference, because the difference is large relative to the problem at hand.

But isn’t it the absolute difference that matters, not the relative difference?  Isn’t it just as important that I save a child from dying of malaria, whether there are 0, 10 or 1000 other children dying of malaria whom I can’t save?  As we say in our video, “What if your daughter was the ‘drop in the ocean’?”

If you think about common attitudes to charity, you can probably recall seeing this “futility bias” in action; I, for example, would guess that it is behind a lot of motivations to donate to smaller charities.  But there is also research that unearths this bias.  In the book The Life You Can Save (p. 53), we read that in one study, “People turned out to be more willing to send aid that saved 1,500 out of 3,000 people at risk than they were to send aid that saved 1,500 out of 10,000 at risk”.  One of the authors of the study, Paul Slovic (who we are now working with), concluded that “the proportion of lives saved often carries more weight than the number of lives saved”.

There is no better story to bring my point home than that of The Star Thrower.  You may have come across this story before, as the original version by Loren Eiseley has been adapted for motivational purposes for many audiences.  The story has long been a favorite of mine and in fact I was delighted to hear it again just last week at a talk by the wonderful Frederick Mulder.  This, briefly, is the tale:

One day, a man was walking along the shore when he noticed a young girl throwing washed-up starfish back into the ocean.  Approaching her, he asked gently, “Child, why are you bothering to save these starfish?  The beach goes on for miles and there must be thousands of starfish along it – you can’t possibly make a difference.”  The girl bent down, picked up another starfish, and flung it into the waves.  Smiling, she said, “I made a difference to that one.”

Let’s now go back to our starting thought: “It’s just a drop in the ocean.”  I’d prefer that we read that in light of the wise little Star Thrower – It’s just a drop in the ocean to save a life…that’s all it takes.



Look out for the next post in this series tomorrow on “Making an Actual Difference”.



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About the author:

Holly Morgan

Holly Morgan is a former Executive Director at The Life You Can Save and a former Director of Community at Giving What We Can; while a philosophy student in Oxford, she played a key role in getting both of these organizations and the wider Effective Altruism movement off of the ground.

The views expressed in blog posts are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Peter Singer or The Life You Can Save.