Why is it so hard for us to take the plunge?

19 November 2010

This guest blog comes from Jacob Burak. Jacob founded Evergreen Ventures in 1987 and became one of the founding fathers of the Israeli Venture Capital community. He is the former Chairman of Maala – Business for Social Responsibility, a leading non-profit organisation to spearhead social change in Israeli society. He is also active in Round-up Israel and Midot, two non-profit organisations aiming to develop and increase efficiency of philanthropy in Israel. Jacob is also a bestselling author.

On May 4, 2009 we were all shaken up by the story of Yasmin Feingold, the Israeli kayaking champion, who was critically injured when the kayak she was piloting overturned in the Yarkon River. The incident occurred at around six in the evening, and though there were many onlookers, not one dared to enter the water for fear of imbibing the river’s heavily polluted water. Finally, one passerby by the name of Avi Toibin took the plunge and saved Feingold, who was by this time unconscious. Every person who read the story in the paper or watched it on the news asked himself the same question: If I had been there, would I have dived in? I will leave you with your own private answer and ask you something else instead: Would you be willing to donate to a nonprofit organization that trains people to ‘take the plunge’ and save the lives of others from violence, starvation, poverty or social ostracism – also fatal in the long term?

The answer may seem simple but in fact is not obvious at all. What exactly does stand between our understanding that our assistance might make a difference in other people’s lives and our inability to realize this understanding in the form of action that does not even endanger our lives or our health? And why do we find it more difficult to identify with those who are needy the further we distance ourselves from the incident in which we encountered them? In short, why don’t we donate more than we do, especially when we believe with the utmost sincerity that that is precisely what we should be doing?

The question is true for every one of us, but all the more so for the ten thousand Israeli men and women who can afford a way of life that was once reserved for the aristocracy – and even a queen could not air condition her palace in summer! Even if we understand that our lack of familiarity with have-nots has a negative effect on our willingness to provide assistance, it appears that this understanding cannot provide a full and complete answer for the behavior of the haves who refrain from making social investments in a field that suits them. Could it be that we tend to react less to others’ needs when the only thing they want from us is a financial contribution?

A study conducted by Kathleen Vohs from the University of Minnesota and published in Science Magazine in 2006 attempts to provide an answer to that question. Vohs and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments in which they primed their subjects to think about money. They did not skimp on their research tools: They gave their subjects tasks that involved unscrambling phrases about money, placed piles of Monopoly money nearby as if by chance, set up screensavers on computers that displayed various denominations of money. Other randomly selected subjects were used as a control group. This group was tasked with unscrambling phrases that were not about money, they were not exposed to Monopoly money, and the screensavers they saw depicted tranquil landscapes.

The researchers studied the differences in behavior between the two groups – the ‘money group’ and the ‘control group’ – and found they were quite significant. Members of the money group were less helpful to others and showed a greater ability to take care of their own needs without assistance. The money group took longer to ask for help when engaged in a difficult task and told that help was available, and were more likely to choose a leisure activity that could be enjoyed alone than one that involved others; in the end, when they were offered the chance to contribute part of the money they had been given as participants in the experiment, members of the money group donated less than those in the control group. Members of the money group even left a greater distance between themselves and others when told to move their chairs so they could talk with another participant.

Even the researchers were surprised to discover the far-reaching effect that reminders of money had on the participants; when members of the control group were asked to aid others, they gave, on average, forty-two minutes of their time, while the money group members offered only twenty-five minutes of assistance. Furthermore, when asked to contribute, they donated little more than half of what the other group did. How is it, then, that money leads us to request or give more assistance or prefer to keep our distance from others? Vohs and her colleagues postulate that with the rise of the use of money in human history, people were able to tend to their own needs with greater ease, and the need to rely on relatives diminished in importance. Thus, the use of money promoted individualism but harmed communal motivation in the way it reflects people’s reactions until this very day. In the UK forty years ago, social researcher Richard Titmuss was one of the most vocal opponents to the procurement of blood donations in exchange for money. While economists believed that the best way to ensure a regular supply of blood for medical needs was to let the laws of supply and demand determine its price, Titmuss claimed that prohibiting the sale of blood strengthened social ties. If blood has no price, he said, then we must rely in times of medical emergency on the stranger’s lifesaving donation. Every person, regardless of his or her income, can give something to society by saving the life of a stranger. If, on the other hand, blood donations were to be commercialized, Titmuss argued that blood would become a commodity and there would no longer be any use for altruism since in a situation of insufficient supply on a voluntary basis, blood could be purchased with money. And money, as Karl Marx had already written in his essay Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, “is the universal agent of separation” because it “alienates us from our true human nature and from our fellow human beings.”

An additional obstacle that prevents people of means from giving up a portion of their wealth in favor of those less fortunate is embedded in our spending habits. These habits are apparently developed in childhood, so that even those who succeed in freeing themselves from the existential anxiety of parents who experienced war and deprivation struggle with a crippling legacy of having been brought up to save and stockpile that is hard to change. Some of them, like all of us, feel true pain (in that part of the brain active during times of distress) when required to make an expenditure that involves something costly. Others continue to save and stockpile for difficult times that will never occur. And don’t be fooled by those who spend extravagantly and wastefully: this is a variation on the same behavior, a belief that lavish spending will hide their basic tendencies, especially from themselves. Some of these people claim to be suspicious in general of the way all charitable organizations are run, thereby freeing themselves from having to cope with the painful dispensation of money. These people should take note of the stinging words of playwright Thornton Wilder, who said, “Money is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow.”

Another common reason to abstain from making charitable contributions is based on the feeling that the number of needy people is so high and their needs are so great that our contribution is nothing more than a drop of water in the sea, and under such circumstances there is no point in giving money since whatever we do will have no effect on the level of human suffering. However, we do not abandon a trekker who has lost his way or a sailor whose ship has sunk even though we could save lots more lives by spending the money used to help them on, say, road lights that could prevent accidents.

When all other excuses have been used up, suddenly the old and comforting evolutionary reasons float to the surface. These claim that we are programmed for survival and for satisfying our own self-interest. According to this approach, altruism, which depletes our resources and endangers our existence, is not a part of satisfying those interests. Everyone understands that evolution itself has no moral compass and the old debate over whether people have an emotional capacity for pure altruistic activity becomes less important than the real question of how we define our self-interests. As the only species on earth capable of roaming its consciousness over time, we have also become the only species capable of subordinating our existential instinct to strategic thinking that takes future results into account. Thus, the mental ability to assess and understand the ravages of social inequality is what produces a new definition of our own self-interest. If what we desire is a good life, in which our mental health and physical health are ensured, then educated giving is a first step in the right direction.

Even the most radical Darwinists today understand that humankind, like bees, has died or lived long lives based on our ability to divide tasks amongst ourselves, help others, and face common threats as one. A large part of our emotions and our social intuition point to just such a shared human past. When we are part of a group we cease to worry solely about our own personal interests or those of other individuals. We are concerned with loyalty, respect, tradition, and sometimes religion. In many ways we are all the evolutionary descendants of group cooperation no less than we are of the genetic competition for survival.