Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

Fatherly Love

The perfect Father's Day gift, and no batteries required!

bad gift
Garish ties. Gadgets. Golfing accoutrement. T-shirts that are reprehensible both in a fashion sense and in terms of apostrophe use (see left).

That's right, this Sunday is Father's Day, a holiday known as much for its litany of lousy gifts as for its underlying heartfelt sentiment. So why not try something different this year? If your dad already has as many slippers and Best Buy gift cards as he needs, why not use the occasion to simultaneously thank him and make a real difference in the life of another dad in need?

www.modestneeds.org is a website that gives you the chance to make an immediate impact on the lives of others. The site provides potential donors with detailed requests from individuals seeking minor financial assistance in the effort to avoid entering the cycle of poverty: a young mother looking for help to pay the first month's rent on a new apartment, a chronically ill patient hoping to afford a new piece of medical equipment, a family struggling to avoid having their utilities shut off, and so on.

The site lets you browse applications for assistance, giving prospective benefactors full discretion as to how to direct their gift. Each request for help is vetted, in many instances including review of documentation to confirm that the circumstances described are accurate and on the level.

There are fathers aplenty listed on the website–fathers who need assistance far more than your dad needs yet another amusingly-captioned light-up hat. Not to mention grandfathers, moms, grandmothers, and others.

I decided to make my small donation to a working father who needs car repairs in order to keep up with his driving job. As he explains, "Due to the economy I don't make very much working as a delivery driver, but to continue working and making the money I do to support my son and his mom, I do need my car fixed before it breaks while I'm driving. It's very dangerous to keep driving it the way it is."

Not only does the website facilitate important contributions to people in need, but it's also really interesting from a psychological standpoint. It's a great example of putting psychological principles into practice, as it cuts right through many of the major obstacles that usually stand in the way of pro-social behavior.

Like the anonymity of the masses. It's easy to remain uninvolved in the lives of nameless, faceless others. Even mass casualties don't always grab our attention, as high as the numbers sometimes go. The modestneeds site instead emphasizes the individualized stories that make you want to exert the effort and resources to help someone else in need. Just as larger charities turn to spokespeople to put a face on their cause, modestneeds provides potential helpers with the ability to single out one person as the recipient of their assistance.

The site also gets around the problem of feeling overwhelmed. There are so many people and causes in need of assistance that it often feels difficult to see how one benefactor can make a meaningful difference in the world. So we remain paralyzed by the hopeless enormity of everything.

But modestneeds offers donors specific, achievable goals. $600 for the property tax bill, $1,100 for roof repairs, $900 in childcare expenses, etc. Moreover, you get to track the status of the donations to the application you choose to fund. In a world where many of us waste more time than we'd like to admit following fantasy sports teams on-line or counting our number of Facebook friends, here's another, far more productive way to pass those idle minutes on your office computer or iPhone.

For example, the delivery driver I donated to now stands at 18% of the donations he needs in order to get his car repaired. I sent my dad an email with the link to the profile so he can keep tabs on the latest dollar totals. Here it is so you can do the same.

Or even better, make a small gift yourself to this profile or to another one you find yourself. Do it in the name of your father and fathers everywhere who might not have the luxury this weekend of opening up and then stashing away yet another talking picture frame. You, too, can make a difference in the life of a stranger, learning a first-hand lesson in the psychology of helping in the process.

 

FATHER'S DAY UPDATE: As of Sunday 6/20, the car repair proposal has been fully funded!  Here is the response from the grateful recipient: "Thank you so much to all of you that helped me out with getting my car fixed, it is greatly appreciated, and i hope one of these days i can be helpful to someone in need. because of all of you many people in the world are getting their needs met. you are such great people. Thanks again to all of you."

 

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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