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The Psychology of Philanthropy

May 12, 2008


The recent cyclone in Myanmar, the enormous earthquake in China, and even the tornadoes in the U.S. are stark reminders that natural disasters occur with frightening regularity. People affected by natural disasters are generally desperate for immediate help. As most people are aware, the ruling junta in Myanmar has despicably and fatally limited the world’s disaster response there. Washington Post columnist Shankar Vedantam examines a different kind of behavior that puts limits on global response — the reaction of potential donors [“Where the Conscience Meets the Checkbook,” 12 May 2008]. Vedantam begins with a great quote from William Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”: If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces. What, Vedantam wonders, moves people to react when disasters strike?

“A few decades ago, a cyclone similar to the one that ravaged Burma last week struck South Asia. As in the case of Burma, the earlier disaster caused widespread destruction among some of the poorest people on the planet. Britain and Australia were among the most generous of the countries that stepped forward with aid, but the philosopher Peter Singer pointed out that Britain’s donation was about one-thirtieth the size of its investment in the Anglo-French Concorde jet project. Australia’s contribution, Singer added, was less than one-twelfth the cost of Sydney’s famous opera house. Going strictly by the numbers, Singer asked whether Britain valued supersonic jet travel more than 30 times as highly as the lives of 9 million refugees. Natural disasters such as the one in Burma, where the death toll is expected to cross 100,000, bring to the fore several paradoxes of human behavior.”

Of course, the philosopher’s question is, in many ways, disingenuous. The dilemma faced by both countries and individuals is how much help can be provided without hurting the economic engines that actually generate the capital from which assistance comes. Asking a person who is dependent on his or her car for their livelihood if another person’s life is worth less to them than the car, puts them in an unfair philosophical quandary. It’s the same dilemma that tribal elders in Africa have faced during times of famine. Do you kill your animals to feed your people or let some people die and preserve your long-term chances of survival? Time and again the elders have decided to save the animals and preserve the future. Still, asking such questions can make us delve deep into our consciences and to search our hearts. Vedantam continues:

“Most people and nations do not follow the tugs of conscience about whether to help others in distress. The paradox is not that people are uncaring. Rather, it is that they fail to act in ways that they themselves know they should. Hardly anyone would think twice about leaping into a pond to save a drowning child, if the only cost to them was ruining a pair of $200 shoes. But in that case, Singer once asked, why do people hesitate to write a $200 check to a reputable relief agency even when they are certain it would save the life of a child halfway around the world? Psychological studies suggest the drowning child motivates us to act because a tragedy unfolding before our eyes activates our emotions, whereas abstract statistics about deaths in faraway places fail to engage us viscerally. Another reason we choose to help the child who is nearby is that we feel personally responsible for the drowning child, whereas we feel many other people are potentially responsible for the faraway child.”

Studies about this phenomenon are often traced to the highly publicized 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City which was witnessed by nearly a dozen people, all of whom failed to intervene. Their failure to respond has since become known as the bystander effect. When faced with situations in which a person is the only one who can make a difference, that person generally acts — often heroically. On the other hand, in circumstances where others could also act, people often hesitate or don’t act at all.

“Singer believes our inconsistencies in moral reasoning highlight the importance of a school of thought called utilitarianism, which suggests we should make moral decisions in a coolly scientific manner, rather than rely on intuitions, laws or religious guidelines. The philosophy is controversial because it suggests people are wrong to put the needs of those from their own countries, their neighborhoods — or even their own species — ahead of the needs of others. The only thing that matters, Singer argues, is what causes the largest improvement in overall well-being. Singer backs up his words with actions: Over several decades, he has contributed a growing share of his income to charitable causes, such as the Oxfam group. He said he now gives about one-third of his income to such causes. And yet, he said, when he passes a homeless person on the street, although he feels drawn to help, he stops himself because it is not in keeping with utilitarian thinking: The same money can produce more well-being overall when channeled through a group such as Oxfam.”

Singer goes on to note that inertia is the biggest challenge that must be overcome when it comes to utilitarian philanthropy. The first check, he said, was the hardest one to write. It became much easier to continue giving. Another thing that affects how and why people give has been called the “CNN effect.” People give to causes in the news.

“Fiery Cushman, a graduate student in psychology at Harvard who studies how people’s moral intuitions can clash with deliberate reasoning, said the unfolding disaster in Burma highlights another dimension of the warring moral compasses we have within ourselves: People are more willing to help in the case of disasters such as the cyclone than with ‘mundane’ and ongoing problems that are equally deadly, such as malnutrition or malaria in poor countries.”

Cushman believes that Singer’s “utilitarian” approach won’t work because people aren’t wired to be cold and rational.

“Cushman questions Singer’s utilitarian approach, because he argues that emotions undergird even our most rational responses. And there is abundant evidence that even though people value reason and rationality, human beings are biologically programmed to react emotionally to visceral moral challenges. Joshua Greene, a Harvard philosopher and neuroscientist who also studies how people think about moral dilemmas, said: ‘The difference between Peter Singer and others is not that he does not have normal emotions but that he is able to override his emotions because of his utilitarian values.’ In the end, the rules that people choose to motivate their actions might be less important than whether they actually act — for whatever reason.”

I agree with Vedantam. Whether you decide to contribute to the rebuilding efforts in Myanmar, China, or Georgia, or decide to make small loans through a group like Kiva, or decide to help a church group or other established charity that helps others in need, the decision to help is the most important first step you can take.

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