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

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

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.