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 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

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.