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The Drop-in-the-Ocean Effect


Explanations > Decisions > The Drop-in-the-Ocean Effect

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



When we think of acting in support of a good cause, it can seem like our contribution is tiny and insignificant in comparison with the total support needed. So we do nothing.

This is a common effect which costs charities millions every year as many think a small donation will have no significant effect. It also is a cause of people not voting as they think that 'one vote won't make a difference.'


A person is approached and asked to help the starving millions in the world. They think about the small change in their pocket and think 'how can I help millions with this'. So they give nothing.

A woman was wondering about how she could help the unemployed, but all she could think was 'There's only one of me'.

A man never votes in elections because he feels his individual vote will not make a difference.


We often make decisions by comparison, contrasting one thing against another. When we compare ourselves against a large number, we feel very small and insignificant, which makes us pull away. We also use percentages and proportion to decide and realize that our contribution would be proportionately very small.

Of course the dilemma is that if everyone contributes, then much can be done, yet if everyone succumbs to the drop-in-the-ocean effect then nothing will be done.

Charities try to overcome this effect, for example by:

  • Using the Identifiable Victim Effect in showing the plight of one person.
  • Showing exactly what a small contribution will buy.
  • Emphasizing how every little helps.
  • Giving evidence of what they have done.
  • Showing the problem affecting friends and family (do you know a cancer victim?)
  • Increasing proximity (where did you last see a homeless person?).
  • Increasing vividness, with words and pictures.
  • Sincerely thanking for their help, no matter how small.

So what?

Avoid falling into this trap yourself. Be proud of making a contribution to good causes, no matter how small and do not think about the proportionate size of what you give.

When persuading others, translate their contribution into concrete positive action, such as feeding a child for a day, as indicated above.

See also

Contrast principle, The Identifiable Victim Effect

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