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.

Our Mind Seems Counterproductive

I listen to a lot of science podcasts, and really love the discoveries, new ways of thinking about the world, and better understandings of the world that we gain from science. Science is a process that strives to be rational and to build on previous knowledge to better understand an objective reality. What is also interesting about science, is that it operates against the way our brains want to work. As much as I love science and as much as I want to be scientific in my thinking and approaches to the world, I understand that a great deal that shapes human beings and the world we build is not rational and seems counterproductive when viewed through a rational lens.

 

Part of the explanation for our minds being so irrational might be explained by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain. The authors describe one reason for why our brains evolved to be as complex and irrational as they are: we evolved to be political and deceptive creatures, not to be rational and objective creatures with a comprehensive view of reality. “Here’s the puzzle:” write Simler and Hanson, “we don’t just deceive others; we also deceive ourselves. Our minds habitually distort or ignore critical information in ways that seem, on the face of it, counterproductive. Our mental processes act in bad faith, perverting or degrading our picture of the world.”

 

We act so irrationally and have such an incorrect view of the world according to Simler and Hanson because it helped our ancestors to be more deceptive and to survive. If you wish to tell a white lie to someone or if you really want to appear sincere in your thoughts and actions, it is much easier if you believe the things you are lying about. If you know you are lying and acting in bad faith, you have to be a really good actor or poker player to convince everyone else. We actually benefit if our brains fail to recognize exactly what is driving us and help us systematically not recognize inconvenient truths.

 

For example, I use Strava, a social media platform geared toward runners and cyclists. The app allows us to upload our GPS data from our runs and bike rides and to compare our routes and see who went the fastest along a particular street or who ran up a trail the fastest. At a base level I know that I am using the app because it allows me show off to other people just how good of a runner I am. But if you asked me at any given point why I upload all my workouts to Strava, I would tell you a story about wanting to keep up with friends, wanting to discover new places to go running, and about the data that I can get to analyze my performance. The first story doesn’t look so great for me, but the second one makes me sound social and intelligent. I am inclined to tell myself that is why I use the app and to deny, even to myself, that I use it because I want to prove that I am a better runner than someone else or to show off to my casual running friends who might log-in and see that I went on a long run.

 

Our brains are not the scientifically rational things I wish they were, but in many ways that is important for us as we try to build coalitions and social groups to get things done. We connect in ways that are beyond rationality, and sometimes we need the generous (though often false) view of ourselves as good actors to help us get through the day. We can strive for more rationality in our thoughts and actions, but we should accept that we will only get so far, and we shouldn’t hate ourselves or anyone else for not always having the nice and pure motives that we present.

Attribution Bias

Our brains are pretty impressive pattern recognition machines. We take in a lot of information about the world around us, remember stories, pull information together to form new thoughts and insights, move through the world based on the information we take in, and we are able to predict the results of actions before they have occurred. Our brain evolved to help us navigate a complex, dangerous, and uncertain world.

 

Today however, while our world is arguably more complex and uncertain than ever, it might not be as dangerous on a general day to day basis. I’m pretty sure I won’t encounter any animals who may try to eat me when I sit at the park to read during my lunch break, I won’t need to distinguish between two types of berries to make sure I don’t eat the poison kind, and if the thunder storms scheduled for this evening drop golf ball sized hail, I won’t have to worry to much about where I will find safety and shelter. Nevertheless, my evolved brain is still going to approach the world as if it were the dangerous place it was when my ancestors were evolving their thought capacities, and that will throw some monkey-wrenches into my life and lead to me to see patterns that don’t really exist.

 

Colin Wright has a great quote about this in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be. He writes, “You ascribe meaning to that person’s actions through the lens of what’s called “attribution bias.” If you’re annoyed by their slow driving, that inferred meaning will probably not be generous to the other driver: they’re a bad person, they’re in the way, and they’re doing this because they’re stupid or incapable. That these assumptions about the situation are possibly incorrect – maybe they’re driving slowly because thy’re in deep thought about elephant tool usage – is irrelevant. Ascribing meaning to acts unto itself is impressive, even if we often fail to arrive at a correct, or fully correct understanding of the situation.”

 

We often find ourselves in situations that are random and try to ascribe a greater meaning to the situation or event we are in. At least in the United States, it is incredibly common to hear people say that everything happens for a reason, creating a story for themselves in which this moment of inconvenience is part of a larger story filled with lessons, staircases, detours, success, and failure that are all supposed to culminate in a larger narrative that will one day all make sense. The fact that this way of thinking is so prevalent suggests to me that the power of our pattern recognition focused brains is still in full swing even though we no longer need it to be as active in as many situations of our life. We don’t need every moment of our life to happen for a reason, and if we allow for randomness and eliminate the running narrative of our life, we don’t have to work through challenging apologetics to understand something negative.

 

Attribution bias as described by Wright shows us how wrong our brain can be about the world. It shows us that our brains have certain tendencies that elevate ourselves in thought over the rest of the world that doesn’t conform to our desires, interests, wishes, and preferences. It reveals that we are using parts of our brains that evolved to help our ancestors in ways that we now understand to be irrational. If we can see that the slow person driving in front of us with a political sticker that makes our blood boil is not all the terrible things we instantly think they are (that instead they are a 75 year-old grandfather driving in a new town trying to get to the hospital where his child is sick) then we can recognize that not everything in life has a meaning, or at least not the meaning that our narrow pattern recognizing brain wants to ascribe. Remembering this mental bias and making an effort to recognize this type of thinking and move in a more generous thought direction will help us move through the world with less friction, anger, and disappointment because we won’t develop false patterns that let us down when they fail to materialize in the outcomes we expected.

Rational Relationships

In his book Some Thoughts About Relationships, author Colin Wright starts by examining what it means to be rational in a relationship. Often times we assume that relationships are built on emotional connections like love, fondness, and collegiality and we balk at the idea that we can bring a rational approach to a relationship or to anything that is driven by emotional feelings. Wright acknowledges the importance of emotions, but believes that bringing a rational approach to a relationship is key to having a successful relationship.

 

He describes rationality within relationships with the following, “Being rational in relationships means that you acknowledge cause and effect, the possibility of iterative improvement, and the potential to pull apart and assess problems to find solutions.”

 

Contrasting rationality is irrationality within relationships, which Wright describes as, “Being irrational means that you rely on a story line to make things right: that if you just believe hard enough, want it bad enough, or go through enough struggle, life will work itself out. No assessment possible, no change necessary.”

 

A rational relationship is one that requires awareness and requires that you get beyond your own perspective. You must interrogate your feelings and opinions and try to understand the thoughts, decisions, feelings, reactions, and behaviors of another person. Once you have worked through yourself and made an effort to view the world from the eyes of the other person, you must ask what factors contributed to the outcome you observed, and in a realistic and honest way ask how things could have been different in a different situation or if other factors had worked out a different way. Rational relationships are built on thought and observation which is challenging and requires concentrated effort to understand everyone’s needs, desires, feelings, and perspectives.

 

If we abandon these rational characteristics, we are left with the story we tell ourselves about the world. What we feel and what we believe is simply the way the world works. The problem is that our story and how we view everything the perspective from which we create our story is incomplete. A sense of injustice, insult, or injury is as serious as a direct threat on who we are. Our feelings constitute truth and the meaning we attach to certain things becomes iron clad.

 

The rational relationship steps back and pulls away the meaning we attach to events. It asks what happened, why did that happen, and how did everyone involved react? Was the outcome of the situation positive for all, damaging for me, threatening for others, or in some way less than desirable for all involved? If the view for any of these is that things could have been better, than a rational relationship rethinks how we interact and behave and seeks a way to improve the relationship for everyone, not just for ourselves.

 

If we choose to live our relationships without this rationality, we instead have nothing but what we tell ourselves and believe. We cannot change because we are simply stuck with another person who is the way they are and not capable of being anything different. The outcomes we face are unavoidable and people cannot be expected to improve their behavior unless you can fully change who they are.

 

Living irrationally is perfectly fine for an individual, but if we all approach the world in this way we will tear it apart. By bringing rationality to our relationships we can work better with other human beings to support their needs and to identify and build relationships that align with our needs and desires. We can better connect and recognize ways of interacting that further our connections and improve our interactions. Irrationality however, will create a world in which we are all building dishonest stories of the world to make us feel better about who we are or to create false narratives to make other people seem worse than they are. Each of us acting from our own limited perspective will have a net negative impact on the world as the micro-gravity of our own story pulls in and distorts the world around us.

Being Irrational

Author Colin Wright addresses irrationality in his book Some Thoughts About Relationships. He dives into what irrationality looks like in our daily lives, and extends irrationality to relationships and our behaviors and actions in relationships. He writes, “Being irrational means that you rely on a storyline to make things right: that if you just believe hard enough, want it bad enough, or go through enough struggle, life will work itself out. No assessment possible, no change necessary.”

 

Wright’s views on irrationality really resonate with me. There is certainly nothing wrong with living ones life based on stories, in fact it is truly unavoidable no matter how rational one becomes (human rights, money, and political parties are useful stories in our lives, but they are stories none the less). Striving for rationality however, means that you are willing to examine the stories that shape your outlook, and you are willing to take your own responsibility for the shape and direction of your life, your community, and the world. Falling back on stories and believing that life is beyond your control and the result of forces that can’t be understood may align with reality in some way, but it leaves us in a place where conscious and active thought is meaningless, and our decisions, behaviors, and actions are instead guided by emotion, perspective, and impulsiveness resulting from the stories we tell ourselves about the world.

 

What Wright encourages us to do, is to build more reflection and awareness into our lives to be able to begin living in a more rational manner. Thinking more clearly and striving to be rational gives you more control over the stories that you tell yourself about the world. Irrational behavior lacks continuity and can be hijacked by people who make emotional arguments, rouse up fear, or present a particular story that highlights only part of reality. Living irrationally in relationships can be damaging since both parties may begin to rely on their own stories and perspectives as opposed to relying on reflection, measured decisions, and shared understandings of decisions and behaviors.