Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

Point. Click. Save this Woman's Life.

How you can save a life with just a few mouse clicks.

It’s well-documented that there are a variety of obstacles that often stand between us and the decision to offer help to someone else in need. Dozens and dozens of research papers have been written on the topic. Blog posts too. Indeed, the factors that prevent us from getting involved in the affairs of others is the topic with which I usually begin my introduction to social psychology course—it’s one for which there’s never any shortage of real-world examples available to illustrate the point.

But the examples I use in class, real though they are, still remain somehow distant and detached, largely because the stories are all told in the past tense: The woman who died in the emergency room after collapsing in full view of multiple employees who didn’t intervene. The man who passed out on a city bus but remained unnoticed for hours as it continued its route. The woman attacked while her neighbors failed to respond to her repeated screams for help. For sure, disturbing stories, but there’s nothing we can do about them other than to say we’re determined to prevent such avoidable tragedies in the future.

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Today’s example is different, though. Today’s story is told in the present tense. And its ending remains uncertain. Its ending rests in your and my hands.

You see, Nalini Ambady needs your help.

If you’re a psychologist, that name may sound familiar to you: Nalini is an award-winning researcher who has held positions at Harvard, Tufts, and now Stanford. But even if you haven’t heard Nalini’s name before, you’ve probably read about her work regarding just how quick (and accurate) our first impressions of others often are. In his best-selling book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the "ability to extract an enormous amount of meaningful information from the very thinnest slice of experience." It's Nalini's thin-slices research he's talking about here.

Nalini needs your help today because now she’s battling leukemia. She needs a bone marrow transplant, but as of today there's no match for her in the donor registry. Because of specific genetic markers, her match will almost certainly be Indian, but unfortunately there’s disproportionately low South Asian representation in the donor pool.

Nalini needs your help, and she needs it quickly, within the next 8 weeks.

So back to those obstacles to helping others that I alluded to above… here’s the perfect chance for all of us to recognize the barriers to helping behavior and break through them before another avoidable tragedy moves from present to past tense. Here’s the real-world example you can use in class that’s more than a teachable moment: it’s a verifiable life-saving opportunity.

What are the obstacles to helping behavior that we can overcome in saving Nalini? First, there’s the tendency to be less likely to offer assistance when we’re in a crowd because we allow responsibility to diffuse to others—we assume someone else will take care of the problem. Well, let me disabuse you of that notion now: no one else is going to take care of this problem. We’re the ones who need to spread the word that Nalini, and so many others in her situation, need help.

Second, we feel less invested in the needs of others when those others remain abstract concepts. This is why charity websites aren’t content to rely on statistics to make their pleas—they know they’ll be more effective if their solicitations are tied to photos, stories, and names of particularly sympathetic individuals. Well, consider this blog post just one prong of a wider effort to spread the word of who Nalini is:

Like the other people who need to find a match, Nalini is much, much more than a number. I already mentioned her academic prowess, but her story, detailed at www.helpnalininow.org, doesn’t stop there. She’s an award-winning mentor of young scientists, with researchers whom she has mentored now spread throughout the globe making their own marks on the field. She is a loving mother to two teenage girls. And she’s a trailblazer, born in Kerala and now the first Indian woman to join the Psychology Departments at Harvard as well as Stanford.

The third, and perhaps most problematic, obstacle to helping is that it’s often hard to know just how to help. Sometimes emergencies are so ambiguous or daunting that we can’t figure out how to assist or can’t convince ourselves that we can really make a difference. Don’t let that stop you here. There are two clear and easy steps that all of us can take to help Nalini:

1) Register today as a potential bone marrow donor in the national registry. It’s easy: if you’re between the ages of 18-44 you can simply go here: http://marrow.org/Join/Join_Now/Join_Now.aspx?promo_code=MatchNalini

Make sure to enter the promo code “nalini” and your request for a cheek swab will be rushed to you and its processing expedited.

 

2) Everyone has the potential to save a life by registering on the site. In Nalini’s case, though, it’s particularly Indian donors who are likely to be a match. Accordingly, you can forward this blog post to any websites, email lists, or organizations with large South Asian memberships.

 

If you're a behavioral scientist teaching about bystander intervention and helping behavior this semester, here’s the perfect opportunity to bring the real world into your classroom. Talk about the need for more donors in class; for that matter, give students an extra credit assignment to come up with creative ways to use psychological principles to heighten awareness of the low numbers of South Asian donors in the pool.

Because this is a present-tense story about a person in need of your and my help. There’s a match out there for Nalini—maybe it’s you; maybe it’s someone you know. It only requires a few moments of your time to find out.

Nalini Ambady needs your help. Desperately and quickly. And all it takes for you to provide it is a couple of simple clicks of your mouse.

 

UPDATE: 4/4/13: For CBS Bay Area video story on Nalini, click here.

 

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

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