But, researchers have found that there is a darker side to our altruism as well. Sometimes we don't give to compelling causes, or we don't give as much as we could. The problem seems to be most severe when we are asked to give to many people who are far away, even if the circumstances of those people are dire. Thus human beings often don't take action in the face of genocide on the other side of the globe, or help alleviate the grinding poverty that plagues a good part of the world's people.
Research has revealed some surprising twists and blind spots in our altruistic behavior. Peter Singer, ethicist and author of The Life You Can Save, has explained several of them in his book on global poverty:
- The Identifiable Victim
Research has shown that we are moved far more by the plight of a single, identifiable person than by that of several people, or a general statement of need. In one experiment, participants were given the opportunity to donate some of the money they had been paid for their participation to a charity that helps children both in the U.S. and around the world. One group received general information about the need, including statements such as "Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than three million children."
A second group was shown the photo of a young Malawian girl named Rokia and told that she was very poor and that their gift could change her life for the better.
The group receiving information about Rokia gave significantly more than the group getting general and statistical information. When a third group got the general information, the photo and information about Rokia, the members of that group gave more than the general information group, but not as much as the Rokia only group. The researchers found that even adding only one more child to the appeal lessened the donation amount.
It turns out that we will spend far more to save an identifiable victim than we will to save a "statistical" life. We feel empathy when we hear the story of a particular person.
Humans have evolved to care for those closest to them, so it is no surprise that we are not nearly as moved by a tragedy far away than by one that involves people we feel close to.
Peter Singer points out that although Americans gave a generous $1.54 billion to help the victims of the Southeast Asia tsunami in 2004, that amount was less than a quarter of the $6.5 billion we gave the next year to help people affected by Hurricane Katrina. That is despite the vastness of the 220,000 tsunami deaths compared to 1600 deaths from the hurricane.
Parochialism was easier to understand before modern communications. It is harder to swallow in an age of instant images from around the world. Its persistence, despite having the world in our living rooms, speaks to the strength of this human trait.
We are all easily overwhelmed by the extent of need. When researchers told study participants that several thousand people in a Rwandan refugee camp were at risk and asked them to send aid that would save the lives of 1500 of them, their willingness to give was related to the proportion of people they could save.
The smaller the proportion, the less willing people were to help. For instance, they were more willing if they could save 1500 out of 5000, than if they could save 1500 out of 10,000 people.
Psychologists term this "futility thinking," and many people reach the futility threshold fairly quickly. Paul Slovic, of Decision Research and a leading researcher in this field, suggests that this phenomenon may be due to a feeling of guilt about the people one cannot save in such a situation. The guilt may have a depressing effect on empathy and altruism