In 2003, the Bam earthquake in Iran killed 26,796 people and left 267,628 survivors. Donors responded by contributing $10.7 million in disaster relief. In 2000, the Yunnan earthquake in China killed 7 people and affected 1.8 million others—and this time donors gave only $94,586.

That pattern of disparity is common, says Ioannis Evangelidis, a doctoral candidate in marketing management at the Rotterdam School of Management. Donor behavior in the wake of catastrophic events suggests that...

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