Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Kidneys in transparent body

(Sebastian Kaulitzki /Shutterstock)

Facebook: Saving Lives, One Kidney at a Time

• May 16, 2012 • 5:30 AM

(Sebastian Kaulitzki /Shutterstock)

Repressed death anxiety leads most of us to avoid becoming organ donors. Psychologists report Facebook may help change all that.

Web-based social networks have little in common with hospital operating rooms. One exists on an ephemeral realm of bits and bytes, while the other lives in the very real world of blood and tissue.

That incongruity helps explain why Facebook’s recent announcement that it will encourage its members to become organ donors captured people’s imagination. And according to psychologists who study how we manage reminders of our mortality, it suggests Mark Zuckerberg’s online creation may be a particularly promising platform to tackle a major medical problem.

“I think it’ll work better than any other strategy I’ve heard of to promote organ donation,” said Jamie Goldenberg, a researcher based at the University of South Florida. “Facebook could be a very safe way to approach a difficult subject.”

As Zuckerberg and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg noted in announcing the initiative, an average of 18 Americans die each day waiting for a heart, kidney or liver transplant. The problem is even greater in much of Europe, as The Economist recently reported. To get that number down, Facebook has created a simple way to add your organ-donor status to your Facebook page’s Timeline (under Life Event).

While there’s no way of verifying that people who tell their network they are potential organ donors have actually filled out the required paperwork, “We believe that by simply telling people that you’re an organ donor, the power of sharing and connection can play an important role,” Zuckerberg and Sandberg write.

The reality is actually not that simple. Facebook hopes to leverage its members’ desire to present themselves as good, likable, giving individuals—people who others would want to “friend.” But there are other psychological factors at play in such a delicate, personal decision.

By definition, agreeing to donate an organ requires contemplating that we’re going to die.

“That’s something people want to avoid thinking about,” said psychologist Tom Pyszczynski of the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He’s one of the fathers of Terror Management Theory, which explores how our beliefs and actions are shaped by our repressed fear of dying.

“When people do think about death, it often leads them to try to live up to the values they hold,” he noted. “If this [campaign to encourage sign-ups] is embedded in a ‘Be a good person’ appeal, the reminder-of-death element might actually increase the tendency of people to go along with it.”

“If people see all their friends are doing this and think, ‘Maybe I should too,’ that could have a broad-based benefit,” added the University of Virginia’s Matt Motyl. But he points to a 2008 study to show how easily such a campaign can backfire.

As part of that study, fliers were distributed on a college campus reading either “Are you concerned about death? We can help!” or “Are you dealing with back or muscle pain? We can help!” Pedestrians who received them were then solicited as potential organ donors. Those who had received the death reminder were significantly less likely to sign up.

“We want to view our body as a sacred vessel,” Motyl said. A doctor who cuts us open and extracts organs “is treating us as if we’re just a bunch of different parts put together.”

While contemplating being cut open is never going to be comfortable, “when people are given an opportunity to affirm their values and beliefs, they’re a little less vulnerable to the creep-out factor,” Pyszczynski said. “Facebook does that. If people were to update their status by asserting what they believe in, what’s important to them, it might make the idea of organ donation less threatening.”

“Facebook is infused with all sorts of meaning and vehicles for self-esteem—pictures of your kids, pictures of your paintings, etc.,” agreed Goldenberg. “You’re putting stuff up there that can have an impact on the world. This provides a defense against people’s feelings of insignificance. It’s a kind of symbolic immortality.”

There’s also an element of literal immortality, as Facebook pages can survive a person’s death. Pyszczynski noted that when a mentor of his died, a group of the man’s friends and former students created a posthumous Facebook page for him. As much terror management research has shown, the idea that we will live on in some way makes it at least slightly easier to think about our death—a prerequisite to considering organ donation.

The potential down side to this plan is that a significant percentage of people will take note of the organ donation indication, register the implications of death, and quickly banish both from their minds. Much research has found such subtle reminders of our mortality can shift the way we feel and act, at least on a short-term basis.

“It’s kind of a paradox,” said Motyl. “Mortality salience can increase people’s tendency to do good within their group, but it can potentially drive them to nasty behavior toward other groups. We’ve done a number of studies in many countries that found people who are feeling existential fears are more likely to support going to war with opposing nations.

“When people think about death, they are more punitive toward others who don’t share their beliefs. They’re also more cognitively rigid, less creative and more close-minded. So, while organ donation is a good thing, I’m a little concerned about the downstream effects of these reminders.”

Goldenberg is less worried about this. “I think we encounter subtle death reminders all the time,” she said.

“Death reminders are an inherent part of being alive,” agreed Pyszczynski. “Having said that, it’s certainly possible that these organ-donation appeals could enhance prejudice and close-mindedness, if that’s what gets activated. It depends on the individual, and what’s going on in their life at the moment.”

Such unhelpful reactions “tend to happen when a person feels their world view is under attack, belief system is being disrespected,” he noted. “The other side of it is, if you feel your values are secure—a feeling that could arise from affirming them on Facebook—you might be more likely to shift in a pro-social direction.”

“Facebook is a non-physical form of the self,” Goldenberg noted. “It distances people from their physical being.” That sort of distancing—along with the implicit promise that a record of who we are, and what we stand for, will live on after our death—makes the thought of our demise a little less scary, and the idea of organ donation a little more palatable.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 2 • 9:00 AM

For Memory, Curiosity Is Its Own Reward

A new study suggests a neural link between curiosity, motivation, and memory.


October 2 • 8:00 AM

Can Prisons Predict Which Inmates Will Try to Escape?

And what can they do to prevent it?


October 2 • 6:00 AM

How Do We Know Our Environmental Laws Are Working?

Ask a great white shark.


October 2 • 5:00 AM

Give Us This Day Our Daily Brands

Researchers find identifying with brand-name products reduces religiosity.


October 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Can’t Anyone Break the Women’s Marathon Record?

Paula Radcliffe set the world record in 2003. Since then? No one’s come within three minutes of her mark.


October 1 • 2:00 PM

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?

The idea that addiction is typically a chronic, progressive disease that requires treatment is false, the evidence shows. Yet the “aging out” experience of the majority is ignored by treatment providers and journalists.


October 1 • 1:00 PM

Midlife Neuroticism Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease in Old Age

New research from Sweden suggests that the personality dimension is connected to who ultimately suffers from late-in-life dementia.



October 1 • 11:11 AM

The Creative Class Boondoggle in Downtown Las Vegas

On Tony Hsieh and the pseudoscience of “collisions.”


October 1 • 9:14 AM

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.


October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription With Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


Follow us


For Memory, Curiosity Is Its Own Reward

A new study suggests a neural link between curiosity, motivation, and memory.

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.