Imagine you’re heading to some fancy event - think a big party or an important business conference. Your route takes you by a shallow pond… in which you see a small child.
They’re struggling, thrashing around, crying out. They’re about to drown.
The water isn’t deep enough to be a risk to you… so will you rush in to save the child?
What about ruining your clothes and shoes? Remember that fancy event - you’re wearing the most expensive things you own. Is it worth sacrificing them to prevent a child from dying?
This is a famous thought experiment posed by the philosopher Peter Singer. He finds that most people immediately say they’d rescue the child despite the expense of replacing some $200 shoes. Only a “monster” would leave an innocent child to drown.
Then Singer poses another related question. He points out that there are countless children at risk of dying right this second. So why aren’t you making a similar monetary sacrifice to save them from preventable diseases, such as malaria? In fact, the same $200 could potentially prevent far, far more deaths.
“We’re all in this situation. For a relatively small amount of money we could save the life of a child,” says Singer. “Am I any different from the person who walks past the child in the pond?”
I’ve spoken before about how helping others is a proven way of boosting our own happiness and wellbeing, but the psychology behind how and when we choose to help is fascinating.
Singer’s “shallow pond” analogy shows that we suck at seeing effective opportunities to save lives, unless they are literally screaming in our faces.
Our brains tend to notice what social scientists have called an identifiable victim – like a child in distress right in front of us. And research shows we all help more quickly when the problem facing us has a human face.
Deborah Small and George Loewenstein at Carnegie-Mellon University had people play a game where they would win or lose $10. The subjects didn’t meet the other players in person, but some “winners” were told to draw a numbered card which would link them to a specific “loser”.
All the “winners” were then invited to help out the “losers” by donating some of their prize money – though their anonymity would be assured and no one would find out if they just kept the $10 all to themselves.
The “winners” who were told their donation would help a specific player (“I am linked with player number FIVE.”) were less likely to keep all the money, and made far more generous donations than the “winners” who were asked to share with an undetermined recipient. Some even gave away the whole ten bucks.
This is the reason why we’re often more likely to contribute to sending a sick child to Disneyland than donate to a fund to finding a cure for the same disease. It’s also why charities send you fundraising flyers with one particular named individual on the front cover, even though the disaster they're collecting for is affecting many thousands of people.
The “shallow pond” analogy also reveals that we don’t always make rational decisions when it comes to our generosity. Messing up our clothes to save one child is a no-brainer, but spending the equivalent to save an entire village of children doesn’t seem to compute in the same way.
When we invest in the stock market or our 401k, we usually do research and take advice so that our money makes the best possible return. But when we choose to give to charity, we usually go with our hearts, rather than our heads. We select a cause that fits with our values or personal concerns, not the one that makes the most of our dollar.
This is something my friend and colleague, the Harvard psychologist Joshua Green has studied – and perhaps helped solve. There are lists of the most effective charities – the ones where our money really does go the furthest – and Joshua was puzzled that decent, generous people still ignored them.
Joshua ran an experiment allowing subjects to give to a charity of their choice, or to a “super effective” one that had been selected for them. Unsurprisingly, most opted to support their own cause. So Joshua tried another approach.
In a different study, Joshua gave his test subjects the chance to split their donation between their preferred charity and an organisation most able to spend their money effectively.
Some people still shunned the charities in the “super effective” category, but overall contributions to these more effective organizations rose significantly. The effect was so pronounced that Joshua decided to try a similar strategy out in the real world – and so he and his colleagues established Giving Multiplier.org.
The website lets you donate to the charity you’d normally support – but also to allocate anything upwards of 10% of that money to a “super effective” fundraiser. Giving Multiplier will also top up your donation at a higher rate if you use this special link.
Since many people now observe the Tuesday after Thanksgiving and Black Friday as #GivingTuesday, it’s a great time to consider spending money on others in need - and doing so a bit more rationally than we usually would.
But even if you don’t have any spare cash for a charity right now, I hope learning about our generosity irrationalities can help you do the most good possible in the future.
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