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.

You Are Not Just Yourself

“Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed,” Seneca wrote in a letter saved in the book Letters From a Stoic, “the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbor, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere. What then do you think the effect will be on character when the world at large assaults it!”

The way we think about ourselves is that we are conscious actors in control of our behaviors, beliefs, worldviews, and actions. Who we are and what we do is under our control. We decide if we want to engage with people, shut ourselves in our room and read all day, be nice to strangers, gossip about our co-workers, and eat at Taco Bell. The reality however, is that much of who we are and what we do is influenced by the people and situations around us. I was recently listening to Rob Reid’s podcast, After On, and his guest described a study looking at the neighbors of people who win new cars as prizes. The number of people who purchase a new car within a short time period after their neighbor wins a car is larger than you would expect just by chance. People seem to be changing their car buying habits when their neighbor gets lucky and wins a new car.

We are never the version of ourselves that is in control of our decisions and behaviors. How we think about the world and what we see when we look at ourselves, the people around us, and the situations we find ourselves in is influenced by the people around us. As Seneca describes, our friends and neighbors can make us feel certain ways, even if we never wanted to feel the way they make us feel. Situations that seem meaningless, like a neighbor buying a new car, can change the way we feel about ourselves.

This idea can be liberating in the sense that we don’t have to believe that we are fully in control of everything. We don’t have to believe that we operate as a completely independent and objective CEO, rationally making perfect decisions about everything. We can take some pressure off of ourselves.

At the same time, this idea can be frustrating. It says that no matter how much you try, things are going to influence you whether you want them to or not. It means that you may be out of luck if you try to change your behavior or try to see the world in a new way. You may have too many forces pushing on you for you to really get outside of the situation that you find yourself in.

Seneca continues, “You should not copy the bad simply because they are many, nor should you hate the many because they are unlike you. Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.” The advice Seneca gives as a reaction to our susceptibility to be influenced so heavily by the people and world around ourselves is to build to our self-awareness. Reflect deeply on how we act and behave and think about the ways we wish to act and behave. Find people who can be mentors and guides in living the life you think is meaningful, and then turn around and do what you can to help others, because you will learn more by helping others than just by doing. Recognize that you don’t have it all figured out on your own, and that you won’t always see everything happening around you, but try to build your awareness and try to focus on continual improvement. Not in a flashy way, but in a confident way that is always available for those wish to tap into it.

Awareness in Action

In a later written to James Harmon for the book, Take My Advice, the late Murray Bookchin writes, “Our ideas must always be completed, fully thought out, and richly informed by a knowledge of the past.  To separate oneself from the past, to maintain a sense of mere nowness, to deny what reason has to give us, as well as intuition, and most dangerously to leave ones thoughts unfinished, is to risk the grave dangers of manipulation and ignorance.” This quote speaks deeply to me about the importance of awareness and presence in our daily lives.  Bookchin would argue that we must develop a sense of connection in our lives that unifies us with the world around us in multiple ways.  We must be aware of our surroundings and current situations, but we must also be aware of our past and how our past influences our actions today.

I frequently focus on self awareness and for a long time I have worked to cultivate my own thoughts and ideas about the planet away from the television, but I never put things in the perspective of Bookchin.  The television according to Bookchin, isolates us in a space that is neither past nor present, it is a suspended reality where  we give up our thought and allow outside forces to shape us.  Our unique background, our independent existences, and our individual thoughts are pushed aside for a vision of life created by others.  In this quote, the idea that people are influenced by television is pushed beyond the simple and benign world of advertising influences and driven to a perspective of people being shaped by the television they watch.  When we abandon our complete thoughts of the past and fail to analyze our current situation, we open ourselves up to be manipulated by another.  We become easily influenced and accept one perspective as our ticket out of ignorance.

I think that Bookchin would encourage in depth journaling as a way to process the events that happen to us, and help us begin to build an awareness of the world.  This aligns with many of the ideas that Richard Wiseman presents in his book 59 Seconds in which he describes the importance of journaling and writing as reflective exercises.  Writing according to Wiseman provides a chance for the brain to systematically organize and express information.  This systematic approach to reviewing our thoughts and actions helps us build awareness and create new connections in our lives.