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.

Selective Attention

I listened to an episode of the After On podcast this last week, and the guest, Dr. Don Hoffman, suggested that our brains did not evolve to help us understand reality, but evolved to help us survive, which often did not require that our ancestors have the most accurate view of reality but instead had the perceptions necessary to avoid lions, work as a tribe, and pick healthy berries. What we see when we look around us is only a small fraction of the world, our eyes are only able to perceive a rather narrow range of electromagnetic radiation (light). With the fact that our brains did not evolve to give us the most clear picture of reality and with our inability to fully perceive all of reality, we must remember that there are reasons to be skeptical of the thoughts produced by our brain.

 

In his book Becoming Who We Need to Be, author Colin Wright discusses the outcomes of our brains cognitive shortcomings. He writes, “This tendency to pay more attention to the seeming unlikely events that happen to and around us is called “selective attention.” Our brains have a bias toward patterns, and ignore so called uninteresting data…” Wright suggests that this is part of the reason our brains our so bad at statistical thinking as I described yesterday. Statistics is hard because we selectively pick out certain things as important and have a distorted memory of the world based on what we happened to see and notice. Wright continues describing what this means for us, “Which in turn result in our finding meaning in what is almost certainly meaningless…familiarity and feeling of significance is merely the consequence of our brains wigging out over the perceived connection, due to its pattern-finding predilections. Because that’s what it does.”

 

When we recognize that we did not evolve to develop a perfect view of what is happening around us and that our brains only selectively record a small chunk of reality, we can begin to think about how approach the world. We know our brains look for patterns and behave quickly, but that the patterns the brain picks out might not be fully correct or meaningful. We don’t have to eat Pringles every time our team is in the playoffs, because we are aware that our brain is making a false connection between us eating specific chips and our favorite team winning based on a perception that doesn’t really exist. What I am ultimately getting at is that our brains can invent realities that seem reasonable, but are based on cognitive errors, selective attention, and don’t actually align with the physical reality of the universe. We make sense out of meaningless things around us and start to attach symbolic importance to things that should not have any importance in our lives.

 

This distorted reality may not be a problem at an individual level with how any of us move through our lives. No one is going to care too much if you believe you need to drink a specific coffee every morning or sit in a specific spot, but as this mode of thinking scales up to a societal level, we must recognize that beliefs resulting from cognitive bias and error can lead to a world that doesn’t operate equitably for all members of society. Public policy must be grounded in the best empirical science and data that we can collect (even if our interpretation of the data is always going to be imperfect) so that we can distribute our finite resources in a reasonable way, and we must cut through our false narratives to avoid stigmatizing groups and discriminating against people who see the world differently from us.