Every day we see people in need. Often we want to do something to help.
Whether voting to ensure equal rights for others, donating to the latest flood appeal, or giving up our seat on the bus for a stranger, we are constantly presented opportunities to help others.
Helping, however, can be fraught.
From voluntourism and effective altruism to the Syrian refugee crisis and marriage equality reform, people disagree on the best ways to help, or even whether helping is warranted.
Here are three reasons why helping decisions are difficult and some advice for helping better.
1. Too much empathy
Empathy allows us to feel what others feel. It has a focusing effect—drawing our feeling and response towards the individual who we see suffering.
It’s wonderful that we have the capacity to care about others in this way. Yet the psychological qualities of empathy can cause problems.
For example, studies show that people will donate more to an identifiable victim; or to save the life of one child than two children.
When large numbers of people suffer, our empathy doesn’t know how to relate. As Paul Slovic says: “Numbers represent dry statistics, “human beings with the tears dried off,” that fail to spark emotion or feeling and thus fail to motivate action.”
We can overcome this emotional spotlight by using empathy to guide our care, rather than direct our donation.
For example, when you feel moved by one child’s struggle with cancer, notice how empathy guides your care. Instead of (or in addition to) donating directly to that one family, find a way to give to a hospital or charity that provides that same care to children just like them.
Or when you see images of earthquake devastation that break your heart, consider donating to an emergency relief fund that responds to all disasters, including the one you’ve been moved by.
With this approach, you ensure your empathy moves you to help more people in need, not only the ones you empathise with.
2. Helping can keep others down
Being a helper intrinsically signals power. And how you choose to help can give or take power from others.
People tend to give dependency-oriented help—the total solution to a problem—when they feel the beneficiaries are not highly competent. And people receiving help pick up on this cue.
On the other hand, giving (and receiving) autonomy-oriented help—which helps the beneficiary cultivate skills to help themselves in the long-term—both communicates competence and helps build it.
Consider the best way to help. Sometimes, like after a disaster, it’s important to provide food and shelter directly. Other times, like when communities are trying to build independence in the long-term, it’s better to teach people how to grow more food or build better shelters.
Next time you donate, think about what you can give and what it might communicate in terms of power.
3. Giving what we want to, not what others need
From “Junk for Jesus”, to blood donor preferences, people often give what’s easiest, rather than what makes the biggest difference. This is closely related to the point above—because donors have power to choose what is offered.
The best way to overcome this challenge, and closely related to power, is to simply ask people how you can best help.
Whether we’re allies to disadvantaged groups or donating for international development, the best outcomes in terms of long-term social change will be driven by beneficiaries themselves.
People usually know what will make a difference in their lives. Why not ask?
If you’re donating, do a bit of research and find an organisation that develops their programs through local community engagement. Many international NGOs—like Oxfam and ChildFund—take the lead from the people they serve in communities abroad.
It’s wonderful we’re helping. Let’s take the challenge and help better.
We must keep on helping others. After all, that is the way this world will change.
The most important thing is to do something: do what you can. Give what you can. Help where you can.
Let’s also challenge ourselves to help smarter.
If we start with a positive intention and are willing to step back and examine our feelings and actions, we will make a more positive impact in the world.
- Cassandra Chapman
Richard Lalonde recently discussed the dangers of focusing on the differences between groups. He says,
“The end result is that we are constantly exposed to information through the lens of social groups, and more often than not, in terms of “us and them.”
Social Identity Theory states that we define ourselves in terms of the different groups that we belong to, for example our nationality, our profession, or our generation. Unfortunately, however, studies exploring Social Identity Theory have shown that we are less accepting of information when it comes from groups of people that we consider to be different to ourselves.
We are less likely to trust information that comes from “them” rather than one of “us”.
This can become a problem when an authority group, like scientists, try to provide information about an important topic, like climate change, to a community group and the community members do not identify with the “scientists”.
Moving from “us” and “them” to “we”
Thankfully, there is way to overcome this bias.
The common in-group identity model proposes that we can ask people to focus on the things that are the same between themselves and others, rather than the things that are different. We can do this by making them aware of a group identity that they share. For example, if “Queenslander” and “Victorian” represent distinct social groups, “Australian” would represent a shared identity.
Essentially, “us” and “them” becomes “we”, which leads to increased trust and more willingness to accept information from the group.
To show how this can work, I conducted a study in 2014 to test the acceptance of information provided by scientists. The information was telling community members from South East Queensland that it is safe to drink water made from recycled waste water. I was trying to see whether the information would be more acceptable when I highlighted that the scientists and the community members shared an identity (i.e., that they all resided in south east Queensland and were therefore all “South East Queenslanders”).
The results showed that it did make the information more effective for those people that identified strongly as “South East Queenslanders”. That is, by making people aware of a shared identity, they were more accepting of the information and were more supportive of the idea of starting a recycled water scheme in south east Queensland.
Create a sense of “we” when communicating information
The take home message? Next time you need to share information with someone, find a social identity that you have in common and make that shared identity obvious in your communications!
By creating more “we” situations, we can help overcome some of the biases to the acceptance of important information.
- Tracy Schultz
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.