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
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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.