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

December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


December 15 • 2:00 PM

No More Space Race

A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a much more globally collaborative project.


December 15 • 12:32 PM

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.


December 15 • 12:00 PM

Gluttony and Global Warming: We’re Eating Ourselves to a Warmer Planet

Forget your car. Our obsession with beef and dairy has a far more devastating effect on the climate.


December 15 • 10:00 AM

The 2016 Presidential Race Has Already Started

And this is the most exciting part.


December 15 • 8:00 AM

The Second Life of Old iPods

Why is it that old iPods are suddenly cool—and pricey again?


December 15 • 6:00 AM

The Lifelong Consequences of Rape

The long-term psychological and physical effects of the experience are devastating. And they’re likely exacerbated by the shame our culture insists on perpetuating.


December 15 • 4:00 AM

Mating Mindset Interferes With Attempts to Stop Smoking

Taiwanese researchers find photos of attractive women put men in an immediate-gratification state of mind.


December 15 • 2:00 AM

Where Innovation Thrives

Innovation does not require an urban area or a suburban area—it can happen in the city or in a small town. What it requires is open knowledge networks and the movement of people from different places.


Follow us


Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

There’s More Than One Way to Be Good at Math

Mathematical ability isn’t one single skill set; there are indeed many ways to be “good at math,” research shows.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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