The People Don't Know What They Want: Social Support

The People Don’t Know What They Want: Social Support

The General Social Survey (GSS) is a long running survey of Americans that considers numerous factors  and capture’s the country’s general thoughts, feelings, demographics, and experiences regarding a range of issues. Sometimes the GSS is useful in distilling the American will, but sometimes it reveals how confused American’s are and the extent to which we don’t know what we want.
Surveying the public can be notoriously tricky and misleading. When individuals are surveyed about specific clauses of the Affordable Care Act (ACA/Obamacare) – for example the requirement that insurances allow young adults to remain covered by their parent’s health insurance until age 26 – people are highly supportive of the policies. However, if you survey Americans about the ACA and  refer to it or any of its policies as Obamacare, then support drops substantially. What people want competes with political identities, and in the end people express a seemingly confused set of political preferences and desires.
The same happens with social support and welfare, as demonstrated by Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. The authors write:
“The largest, most representative survey of American attitudes, the General Social Survey, has consistently shown that between 60 and 70 percent of the American public believes that the government is spending too little on assistance for the poor. However, if Americans are asked about programs labeled welfare in particular, their support for assistance drops considerably.”
What the survey shows us is that people don’t understand poverty well, don’t understand social support programs, and don’t understand the role of the government in assisting the poor. The term welfare has been colored to represent lazy people who are taking advantage of the system. People don’t like welfare, even though they like the idea of being charitable and helping those in need. In America, the idea of social support is that it helps someone get back on their feet to provide for themselves, whereas welfare is seen as a system of dependence that devalues the individual receiving the aid and enables laziness and degeneracy.
This idea is supported by the primary way that many American’s prefer social support and charitable actions to be handled – through religious organizations. In my eyes, religious charity seems to have a quid pro quo element, where the individual receiving support is implicitly expected to attend the church or be more deferential to those who give, and donors also expect some sort of Divine reward. There seems to be more acceptance of strings placed on donations through churches, with the idea that it will be support provided based on the standards set by the church community. This can be a way to screen out individuals who use drugs, atheists, and those who are unwilling or unable to receive counseling that aligns with the worldviews of the donors. Welfare, on the other hand, is simply support from a government bureaucracy with seemingly little to push the recipient to change their lives to the standards of the donor.
This seems to me to be why people dislike welfare but support the idea of providing more social support. People don’t really know what they want with social support, but they know they don’t want to see homeless people around and want to look charitable. The result is a distrust of welfare, but a feeling that they and others (possibly through government but possibly through other avenues) should be doing more to provide social support to those in need, especially if that support can shape the needy to fit with the ideals of the person donating money or providing taxes to support the poor.

On Charity, Evolution, and Potential Blind Spots

“Spontaneous generosity may not be the most effective way to improve human welfare on a global scale, but it’s effective where our ancestors needed it to be: at finding mates and building a strong network of allies.” Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson include this quote in their book The Elephant in the Brain when looking at our typical behaviors for donating money and the excuses we have for making donations. Our behaviors don’t always match the expectations we might have if we were donating money for the reasons we claimed to be donating.


At its base, the argument is that making donations is about impressing others to increase our own status and make it more likely that we will attract a mate and pass along our genetic information. The main thesis of the book is that we deceive ourselves with the reasons for our actions, and actually act in much more self-interested ways than we would like to admit, so that we can have a better chance of finding a mate and continuing our genetic line.


Like charitable giving, where sometimes we really do make donations to help the world, the stated reasons for doing what we do are sometimes legitimate and accurate, but often times they don’t account for the whole story. We claim to make donations to improve the world, but we often just make small donations impulsively when people are watching. We want to impress them with our generosity and resources, and we want to raise our social status and attract a mate.


If there is one thing that I would say I am most likely to be wrong about, it is the extent to which I believe our tribal ancestry shaped our evolution (especially our cognitive evolution). I look at most things and consider how they made sense and how they may have originated in small tribal groups. This seems to work well when considering charity, but I may be overly reliant on this explanation and miss other factors. For now, however, with backing from research presented in books like The Elephant in the Brain, self-interested behavior emerging from small tribal groups will be the basis from which my theories of human behavior and interaction begin.

Why Don’t We Care About People Living Far Away?

In human societies, it is quite OK to be biased toward local rather than foreign or distant concerns. We care a lot about our own family, care a little less about our neighborhood, care less about the people on the other side of town, care less about people across our state, less about people in other states, and much much less about people in other countries or on other continents. Our minds really only seem to have the capacity to fully care about those things in our immediate vicinity, pushing the worries and troubles of others out of our thoughts. When we consider charity, we like to put ourselves first, thinking of things we can do in our community before we consider things we can do outside of our community (not always but in general). The highest impact use of our resources (such as charitable donations) can often come from people who live far away, where our money can have greater purchasing power and make a greater marginal benefit for the recipient.


Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson look at this phenomenon in their book The Elephant in the Brain. They specifically consider how this plays out for our leadership, “We want leaders who look out for their immediate communities, rather than people who need help in far-off places. In a sense, we want them to be parochial. In some situations, it borders on antisocial to be overly concerned with the welfare of distant strangers.”


In a sense, it is easy to understand why we are concerned with the people in our community. If we make a big effort to help the homeless in our own city, then we might not have to see any homeless or deal with any panhandlers. But in another sense, it can be harmful to only focus on the people in our own communities. If we can make relatively small investments to help reduce famine in a distant country, then it may prevent a major crisis that leads to refugee flows back into our own country.
My concern is that as we move forward on this planet, we will need to find ways to think of ourselves beyond our local communities. We will face challenges that require human responses on a global scale, and if we are limited by tribal thinking, then we will not be able to successfully cope with these problems of enormous magnitude. Somehow we have to recognize that our brains are biased toward local present needs, threats, and dangers, and think beyond ourselves, our communities, and our current moment.

Motivated to Appear Generous

One of the big challenges in life is being content with ourselves and our work without needing others to notice the good things we have done. As social creatures we want acknowledgement, praise, and approval from our fellow humans, so simply being good or doing good on our own doesn’t seem to satisfy us in the way we need. We all recognize and understand that we should be content without someone patting us on the head to tell us good job, but nevertheless, we pursue social approval all the time.

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson look at this type of behavior within our charitable donations in their book The Elephant in the Brain. They write, “Griskevicius calls this phenomenon blatant benevolence. Patrick West calls it conspicuous compassion. The idea that we’re motivated to appear generous, not simply to be generous, because we get social rewards only for what others notice. In other words, charity is an advertisement, a way of showing off.”

As a child, I used to seek approval and gratitude from my mother in a similarly conspicuous way. If I did a chore like vacuuming, I would leave the vacuum out so that my mother would see that I did something. She would tell me to put the vacuum away and be a little frustrated, but at least I could be sure that she knew that I did something good.

These direct appeals for attention, praise, and recognition are frowned upon. We don’t like the person at the gym water fountain who over-plays how out of breath they are and tells us how hard that last set of squats with all that weight was. We don’t like the person in the office that goes out of their way to show us how long the report they wrote was. As adults, it is harder to get away with obvious gestures that are designed to get people to notice the good things we do.

Our charitable uses of money or time are a way to get around this. We can publicly donate a large amount of money, we can save our money for donations in public settings such as charity auctions, and we can make sure that everyone sees our Facebook photo about how blessed we feel to be able to give back by volunteering. As long as it appears that our main motive is to do something good, we can get away with the same type of bragging or showing off that I did as a child when I made it super obvious that I had done my chores.

Donating to Faces

In the United States there is a lot of wealth and a lot resources that are directed toward charity. One problem, however, is that the people who are the most in need of charity are generally in developing countries and economies on the other side of the globe. Those counties and individuals, where our donations from the United States could go the furthest, don’t manage to capture as much of the donation market as we might think they would given the scale of need and potential impact of our donations. Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain call this the Relatability Problem of charitable donations.


They write, “we’re much more likely to help someone we can identify-a specific individual with a name, a face, and a story. First investigated by Thomas Schelling in 1968, this phenomenon has come to be known as the identifiable victim effect. The corresponding downside, of course, is that we’re less likely to help victims who aren’t identifiable.”


We might hear a news story about millions of people in a distant country being displaced by a major natural disaster. We might see lines of people trying to flee a destroyed town or countryside, but the further from us they are in terms of both distance and culture, the less likely we are to feel a burning desire to help them. I think that part of this comes from the rational side of our brains. We want to be sure that if we expend effort, energy, or resources, that we can see the final product to know that something good happened. If we can see a single person in need who received a meal, a place to sleep, or had a home repaired as a result of our charity, then we will be more likely to make some type of donation to help, especially if we can see something in ourselves in their situation. When we just see statistics about how many people are in need and how many dollars helped however many people, we are less sure that our efforts really made a difference and actually applied to the problem at hand. This feels like it makes rational sense, but as I have detailed previously, our charity is usually not very rational to begin with, and our brains end up driving our charity to less rational purposes in this potential rational aim.


Peter Singer gives an example of this in his book The Most Good You Can Do. If we see a campaign for the  Make-a-Wish Foundation to help one specific child with a terminal illness have an amazing day, we will likely feel incredible empathy for the child and we will see an opportunity for us to be part of making something spectacular happen for a child with an unfortunate and unavoidably short life. We see exactly who we are helping, we can read or watch a story about why we should help this child (and others like them), and how our donation will help them directly. At the same time, however, the CDC reports that in 2016 445,000 people died from Malaria, a preventable mosquito born parasitic infection.


We could make a $250 donation to the Make-a-Wish Foundation and our money would go toward some things that help provide a fantastic day for the one child whose story we can see on TV or read about. We could alternatively make a $250 donation to the against malaria and provide about 50 anti-malarial bed-nets to children. Somewhere inside us, the statistics about bed-nets doesn’t weigh as heavily as helping the one child whose story we saw on TV, even though we are helping 50 children and potentially saving the lives of the children by ensuring they have something to prevent Malarial infections. Its hard to say how much our donation does for the Make-A-Wish foundation, but we know pretty well what our donation toward bed-nets does.


Global charities helping those where our resources could go the furthest are hampered by our empathetic drives to help those with whom we relate to. We first want to help those who look like us, have similar backgrounds, and speak our same language. After that we are willing to try to help those unknown people creating the statistics that fail to move us to action. We don’t donate because we want to make the most good, we donate because we feel compelled to help people who look like part of our tribe.

Donations and Visible Peer Pressure

I have never been super comfortable with fund raiser activities, but there is a reason we go through so much effort with fundraising when we are parts of groups, organizations, and cash-strapped clubs. “Up to 95% of all donations are given in response to a solicitation,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain citing a 2005 literature review by Rene Bekkers. We don’t part with our money on a whim (when it comes to donations) and we prefer to wait until someone asks us for money. The authors describe why by writing, “By helping donors advertise their generosity, charities incentivize more donations.” Having another person directly ask for money ensures that at least one other person will see the donor’s charitable action and be aware of how generous they are.


In the quotes from Hanson and Simler we see two factors from my post yesterday that influence whether or not we make donations: visibility and peer pressure.


When I am grocery shopping by myself, I have no problem saying no to scouts or charity groups soliciting donations as the door or to cashier/checkout prompts for donations to certain causes. When I am with my wife, however, it is always a little harder to say no because I don’t want someone I care about to see me as heartless and inconsiderate. Most of the time I have no way to know if the charity is effective, if the person collecting the donation is reliably going to give my donation to the charity, or how much need there really is for my donation. I am simply stopped in my tracks and asked to make a donation, even if it is a small and ultimately meaningless donation.


To me, it often doesn’t feel as though I am being asked for money, but that I am being asked to signal my virtue as a generous person.


It is easy for us to say no when no one will see us, but when our act is visible and when another person directly appeals to us, it is hard to say no. We end up feeling guilty if we don’t make a token donation.


If our charitable activity was more about helping those in need and doing good in the world, we would not have these constant virtue tests at local grocery stores. We also wouldn’t have bricks bearing our names at the places we back with our donations. We would not have platinum, gold, and silver sponsors at charity events and open charity auctions would not happen.


Our donations are often about doing something good to support a meaningful cause, but they are also often about making sure people know we are the kind of people who donate to nice sounding causes. Our donations are a way to show our virtue, even if our donation is effectively a throwaway. We donate more when people know we donate, and rather than actively giving away our resources we wait until we are asked by someone else, guaranteeing that at least one other person knows how good we are. To really make a difference with our charity, however, we should seek out automatic ways to make donations that have a big impact. Our name can still be attached, but we should at least make sure we donate not because we will feel guilty by not donating, but because we want to direct our money to the place where it will make the biggest impact.

Five Factors To Consider Regarding Our Donation Behavior

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin simler and Robin Hanson ask just how much of our behavior is influenced by our self-interest. As an explanation for why we do what we do, simply saying that we did something because we gained some material good, gained more social status, or received some type of pleasurable outcome is generally accepted, but ignored. It is clear that we have self-interest in doing things that we benefit from, but in many ways, we like to ignore self-interest and we prefer to explain our behaviors with more complex rationalizations for why we do what we do. This motivated reasoning, however, creates models that account for many factors without acknowledging the main factor that we would all rather ignore, the elephant in the room (brain), our self-interest.


Simler and Hanson investigate charitable donations in the framework of self-interest and consider the warm glow feeling that we get when we make charitable donations, help the person on the street, and generally do good things for others. They look beyond simply “we do things because it makes us feel good” and ask questions to get to a deeper level understanding of human behavior:


“The much more interesting and important question is why it feels good when we donate to charity. Digging beneath the shallow psychological motive (pursuing happiness), what deeper incentives are we responding to?


To figure this out, we’re going to examine five factors that influence our charitable behavior:
  1. Visibility. We give more when we’re being watched.
  2. Peer pressure. Our giving responds strongly to social influences.
  3. Proximity. We prefer to help people locally rather than globally.
  4. Relatability. We give more when the people we help are identifiable (via faces and/or stories) and give less in response to numbers and facts.
  5. Mating Motive. We’re more generous when primed with a mating motive.
This list is far from comprehensive, but taken together, these factors help explain why we donate so inefficiently, and also why we feel that warm glow when we donate.”


I have been writing a lot recently about charitable giving. Part of the reason why is because I see great potential in the resources at the disposal of the average American. We have a lot of wealth relative to the rest of the world, a lot of time relative to previous generations, and a lot of information available to us. However, rather than using our wealth, our time, and the information available to us to maximize our lives, make the world a better place, and solve pressing problems, most people waste their resources. I have continually been thinking about what I consider The Stupid Economy where we feel pressured to buy things we don’t really want to keep up with and impress people we don’t really care much about, and use our resources in pointless and meaningless ways.


Our world today has incredibly bright people working at meaningless jobs. We use a lot of our human potential, our creative energy and brain power, and our money to get people to drink sugary water. We invest massive amounts of attention in celebrity news and we celebrate technological inventions like iPhones without applying our hunger for technological improvement to other problems that could potentially save more lives or do more to protect the planet from human caused problems – like trash in our oceans.


I want to encourage society to move in a direction that is more considerate and careful with our resource use. I want to be part of something that builds toward a society that has a smart economy, where instead of complaining about the diminishing purchasing power of our society while simultaneously buying $100 jeans we celebrate the resources we have and put them toward real use to create sustainable development. If we are going to set out to do good in the world, we have to understand what Simler and Hanson describe in the quote above. We have to understand how our rationality is derailed, and we need to understand why it is important to be truly effective when we try to do good with what we have.

How Helpful Are We?

“People are willing to help, but the amount they’re willing to help doesn’t scale in proportion to how much impact their contributions will make.” Author’s Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write this in their book The Elephant in the Brain when discussing our behaviors around donations and charity. “This effect,” they continue, “known as scope neglect or scope insensitivity, has been demonstrated for many other problems, including cleaning polluted lakes, protecting wilderness areas, decreasing road injuries, and even preventing deaths.”


In the United States, we have a high regard for charitable donations and activities. We encourage people to donate their time and money and our tax system has a way for people to get something back from the government by reducing how much they own in taxes if they gave enough in charitable donations. What Hanson and Simler highlight in their book, however, is that our human brains are not well suited to ensure that all of our charitable donating is having the greatest impact possible.


I am a public policy student and practitioner, and a key thing to understand about public policy is that at the core, it is not rational. The deepest level of policy is entirely based on values and sometimes pure emotions. You cannot rationally come to a reasonable conclusion for whether the nation (city, county, state) should invest its final $1 million dollars in policy to reduce tobacco use, or increase educational support for children with autism, or clean and remodel a popular park. The final decision is going to come down to the values of the voters and of the government’s leadership.


The same is true for our individual donations. Is it really best for us to make donations to the Against Malaria Foundation to save lives in countries far away from us? Should we use our donations to help improve the lives of children living right here in our own community? Are we obligated to use our donations to help other people like us who have also gone through medical crisis, trauma, or natural disaster challenges that we have experienced and survived? The heart of these decisions will always be an emotional values decision.


We can, however, try to develop institutions that help people ensure that once they have made these value judgement they use their charity in the most meaningful way possible. We can develop social systems and attitudes that encourage people to pool their charitable resources toward one meaningful purpose that aligns with their values, rather than donating a few bucks here and there to a charity that pulls at their emotions (a single large donation to an effective charity can do much more good in the world than multiple smaller donations to charities that range in terms of effectiveness). We can develop organizations that do more to analyze the effectiveness of given charities and develop new systems for looking at how we can make sure our donation does the most good based on where we want to do our good (whether it is saving lives, helping local development, improving education, or something different). We can use our tax system to encourage smart charity rather than stupid charity where celebrities just buy overly priced pictures of themselves from random foundations that claim to have philanthropic purposes but really just pay off porn stars to protect the political prospects of their benefactors (cough-Trump-cough).


Ultimately, our brains our wired to be charitable to show people that we are nice caring people. As a result, we don’t really care about the effectiveness of our donation, we just want people to see that we made a donation and that we are the kind of person who is caring and generous enough to help others. This leads us to make stupid donations rather than smart an effective donations, but by changing the institutions surrounding our charitable activity, we can start to actually do good in a rational manner with our charity.

Return on Donation

An argument that Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson present in their book The Elephant in the Brain is that when we donate to charity, we are signaling to others how caring and generous we are as humans. The actual good that our donation will do is secondary to being the kind of person who is caring enough and generous enough to help out with what ever cause we donate toward. It is not, the authors argue, the suffering of other people or creatures that we are concerned about, it is whether or not we think of ourselves and are seen by others as the kind of person who cares about it.


Simler and Hanson write, “Occasionally, we’re even happy to donate without knowing the most basic facts about a charity, like what its purpose is or how donations will be spent. “Within two weeks of Princess Diana’s death in 1997,” writes Geoffrey Miller, “British people had donated over 1 billion pounds to the Princess of Wales charity, long before the newly established charity had any idea what the donations would be used for, or what its administrative overheads would be.” When we analyze donation as an economic activity, it soon becomes clear how little we seem to care about the impact of our donations. Whatever we’re doing, we aren’t trying to maximize ROD [return on donation].”


If we were very concerned about making sure that we made a difference in the world with any money we donate, then we would take steps to ensure that our donation was going to make a difference. We would want to see a spreadsheet showing how the foundation used our money. We would want to know how many people were helped and in what way. We would want to know how much money went to the salaries of the employees of the charity, what money was spent on office furniture, and how much money was simply used as fixed office costs that didn’t benefit the cause we wanted to support.


Instead, the charities we donate to very rarely present any information along these lines. Our donations and charity are something we feel in our hearts, not something we think about in a rational way. Effective Altruists have argued that if you want to actually make a difference you can feel good about, if you actually want to show that you are a caring person, you should make an effort to understand how much good your donation is doing. We act as if that is why we donate, but then we don’t do any of the things (most of the time) that would support the argument that we care. A much more simple explanation of our donations is that we want to look good and feel good internally about our generous and charitable behavior, even when our generosity and charity is effectively wasted on organizations that are ineffective.

Why Do the Most Good?

Peter Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically examines a new movement toward ethical responsibility on a global scale.  What Singer explores in his book is the way in which effective altruists measure their impact in the world and go about trying to make positive changes. In his view, an effective altruist is measured in their generosity by rationally examining their resources and the resources of others so that they can make decisions that would best benefit those who are in the most profound poverty.  This system for an effective altruist not only allows them to assist others, but it also allows them to live without waste in their own lives.


Singer highlights part of the identity of effective altruists when he writes, “Effective altruists, as we have seen, need not be utilitarians, but they share a number of moral judgements with utilitarians.  In particular, they agree with utilitarians that, other things being equal, we ought to do the most good we can.” What he is explaining is that effective altruists have a rational approach to life, but they are not only interested in concrete concepts such as the usefulness of individuals, programs, and objects in society.  They may be measured in their approach to aiding others, but they will embrace a program if it reduces suffering for others rather than embracing a program because it proves to generate progress for society.


This quote makes me wonder about why we want to do the most good we can do, and why a rational individual would set out to make that their life goal.  Singer offers evolutionary explanations as to why altruistic behavior became part of the human experience, but when we begin looking at rational behavior, we must look past our evolutionary past.  Emotionally we want to donate and assist others to feel positive about ourselves. We want to be able to say that we made an impact in other peoples lives, and that we assisted those who were not as fortunate as we are.  We receive a boost of dopamine when we make our donation or think about the ways in which we have helped others, but a rational individual can come up with thousands of excuses to overcome our dopamine induced desire to help.  We can rationalize donations and see that when we donate we are actually helping society progress by saving lives or reducing the suffering of others so they can become more active.  However, this type of rationalization becomes utilitarian and to me seems as though it would push us toward making local donations and contributions to help those in our community. What Singer describes that sets effective altruists apart is their desire to assist those living in the most poverty stricken situations on a global scale. Effective altruists are focused on stretching their dollars as far as possible to assist people, which often means helping those who live in extremely poor countries, often on the opposite side of the planet. If we live a life focused on doing the most good for others, then our life begins to be shaped by generosity and action in a positive direction. Our sacrifices adopt a story that is greater than our own personal happiness, and that larger meaning helps us feel valuable and encourages us to continue when we grumble and face personal obstacles.  Doing the most good we can satisfies an evolutionary dopamine fueled desire to help others, but it can also give our lives a purpose that is missing in an often self-centered capitalistic society.