Tuesday, October 21, 2014

From Idealistic to Idea-Driven: 16 Months and Still Learning

Hi everyone, this is Elise. I am one of the research assistants working for Think Elephants International. I have been living in Thailand for about 16 months now, and have started to reflect on how my attitudes and perceptions about science, conservation, and my future have changed over the past year and a half.
            I graduated from a small liberal arts college in the summer of 2013 and two weeks later hopped on a plane to Southeast Asia. I was excited and nervous and in many ways idealistic. College, at least the one I attended, was fantastic for a lot of reasons. It pushed me to think critically and pursue my interests, but it was also a bubble. A small, unrealistic cocoon where I could get outraged at deforestation, seethe about climate change, and in total safety and comfort, imagine how I would change the world.
            I will admit that I am still very idealistic and in some ways more passionate about conservation than when I left college, but I have also had a number of my ideas and views change over the past year and a half. I decided to write a short blog series about a number of these views and the experiences I have had that made me more realistic about my thoughts and more driven toward my goals.

This is me (Elise) and my friend Am.

            In this entry I am going to discuss a misperception that I had about the non-profit world and more specifically about donations. I will start with a quick anecdote about something that happened when I first arrived in Thailand. I was listening to Dr. Plotnik talk to a small group of people about elephants. He was discussing why he started the non-profit, Think Elephants International, and about the future of the species. I was listening and enjoying when all of a sudden I heard him say, “If we don’t make changes now, we likely won’t have any elephants left in the wild in 50 years.” I was shocked. Fifty years? I would still be alive then! When I had previously thought about the extinction of large, charismatic species like the elephant, I thought there was no way they were that close to being lost forever. I thought it would be hundreds or thousands of years before we got to that point, but no, as Dr. Plotnik explained Asian elephants only have around 15% of their original habitat left. I was truly shocked.
            Immediately I thought we have to get this information out there. If people just knew how dire the situation was they would be sure to support our efforts to save such an intelligent species. So I started working these facts and statistics into Facebook posts, presentations I was giving, as well as direct calls to actions to potential donors. What result did I get? Polite smiles, some questions, an occasional short-lived upset, but no one jumping out of their seats to help us. How could this be?
            After that I started noticing where donations went and how donors chose to use their charitable gifts. The biggest trend I saw in Thailand was tourists wanting to sponsor an elephant. There are a number of organizations in Thailand that are working to protect captive elephants and give them better lives and many of them have utilized the ‘adopt-an-elephant’ plan. That way someone can come to this country, interact with an elephant in real life, and pledge money to an individual they feel a personal connection with. This also gives them a very tangible product of what their gift went to. I am in no way condemning the foundations that run programs like this nor the kind people who have had their hearts melted by an elephant here. I did however become fascinated by this phenomenon and started researching.
            It turns out what I was witnessing is common across most non-profits. Instead of using shocking statistics that explain the scope of the problem, these organizations get much more traction through storytelling. We have probably all experienced this at some time or another, not necessarily in direct relation to a charitable cause. When you feel a personal connection to something, you are much more likely to act or speak out than when you have heard some statistics that are not directly relatable to your life. An example would be hearing statistics that funding for arts programs in public schools has decreased over a given amount of time. This may or may not make you upset but when you hear about a school that your child or a child you are close with attends is cutting music and art classes you get more upset and more likely to take action.
            It turns out part of what is at play here is a cognitive bias shared by most, called scope insensitivity. A study conducted back in 1992, asked participants how much they would pay to save birds from drowning in uncovered oil ponds. The subjects of the study were told that 2,000, 20,000, or 200,000 migrating birds were dying each year from the issue. The results were that subjects were willing to pay $80, $78, and $88 respectively, which quite obviously does not reflect the difference in scope between the three initial values. Why does this happen? Join me quickly for a thought experiment. First, try to imagine one bird, struggling in an oil spill, with its flight feathers dripping and its whole body fighting to stay alive. Now try to imagine 2,000 birds doing the same thing. Now try 200,000 birds. It’s not easy, if possible at all to conjure up that image, whereas our brains had a much easier time thinking of that one individual and likely feeling emotional about the one sick bird as opposed to the 200,000 dying ones.
            A lot of non-profits are tapping in to this aspect of human behavior. Instead of using statistics and facts, charities are looking for stories about individuals they are affecting. Telling the story of a young child whose life was changed by a generous donation is heartwarming, cold statistics are not. So how does Think Elephants International put this to use? It is something we are working on but because of the type of work we do here, we have struggled to find the right narrative. We are working to save the species as a whole by learning more about Asian elephant intelligence and by educating students about the importance of protecting wildlife. These are large-scale goals so finding the smaller stories within them can be difficult. I would love your feedback about what stories you think we should tell. What do you respond to from our website or Facebook page or blog? Do you have any ideas for the team here in Thailand? We would love to hear from you either in the comments to this blog or by sending an email to info@thinkelephants.org.


Desvouges, William F.; Johnson, Reed; Dunford, Richard; Boyle, Kevin; Hudson, Sarah; Wilson, K. Nicole (1992). "Measuring Non-Use Damages Using Contingent Valuation: An Experimental Evaluation of Accuracy". Research Triangle Institute Monograph 92–1.



  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Elise. As an auditor we continually work to share the problem "the cold statistics", but we always follow up with what does that mean - to tell the story to inspire our readers to take action.
    Elizabeth in Canada

    1. Very powerful, Elise, and brings to the surface the underlying issue that is so easy to overlook when in the presence of these amazing creatures. I feel so privileged for being able to spend almost two weeks working as a volunteer with Think Elephants International and have spent the last week trying to figure out how soon I can return. I don't know if I can hold fast to the following commitment but, after reading your blog, I realize that the RIGHT THING TO DO is to contribute the money I would use to repeat my personal joy to contribute to the work of Think Elephants International with the goal that there will be many more wild elephants and fewer and fewer captive. Perhaps "captive" is a word that will catch people's attention: not a condition anyone wants to be in especially a creature as wonderful and intelligent as an elephant. Julia