On the Pitfalls of Charity

We like to help, but not necessarily the most needy

Posted Oct 06, 2010

The horrors in Haiti and, more recently, Pakistan got me thinking about the psychology of charity. On its face, the act of charitable giving is quite noncontroversial. Someone is in dire need, you sense their pain, and you lend a hand. This helpful impulse is in fact a part of the unique hardware of the human species. We are extremely autonomous and creative as individuals, but we can only survive in highly organized groups. We have therefore developed the ability to respond to subtle cues in others not only instrumentally, but emotionally. We are able to feel empathy--to literally experience someone else's feelings as our own--not only toward our own immediate relatives, but toward any member of the species, and, for that matter, toward members of other species.

If you see a wounded dog on the street you actually feel the dog's pain and terror. As far as we know, a giraffe could not care less about a wounded zebra. Our capacity for empathy is so deeply wired that we respond not just to actual suffering of actual living beings but to the representation of suffering. No other animal can identify emotionally with an abstract painting, a cartoon drawing, or the plight of fictional characters on a distant imaginary planet. That's why animals have no use for art.

Our ability to empathize is the social glue that helps us maintain the complex cooperative structures required to sustain the species. The recent discovery of a system of "mirror neurons" provides the physiological explanation for this capacity. Mirror neurons fire both when we perform a certain act and when we observe it in others. Thus, seeing someone get hurt activates the same neural structure that responds when we ourselves are hurt.

This is why, contrary to popular opinion and the impression you get from the nightly news, the human tendency to cooperate and soothe is stronger and deeper than the tendency to compete. Competition, after all, depends on cooperation, because if you can't cooperate to agree on the rules of the competition, there will be no competition. We are so predisposed to cooperate that even our wars are orchestrated through a set of agreed upon rules.

Aggression is also secondary to cooperation in our species. Most of us, after all, live lives that are very exposed and vulnerable to the ill-intentions of others. Most of us have the capacity to spread a great deal of harm around, if we so choose. But if you look at the capacity for harm each of us possesses in relation to the level of harmful behaviors that we actually perform every day, you will find that causing harm is the exception, not the rule. Getting people to act charitably is usually much easier than getting them to act violently. Many more passing strangers will immediately stop to help a lost child than would stop to hurt it.

So, charity, empathy, and cooperation are in our genes. And yet charitable action, as personal habit, has some dubious, counterproductive features. First, our charitable impulse tends to be reactive, not proactive. We are good at responding to the disaster that has happened, not at preparing for the one yet to happen. How many of those who donated recently to Haiti's victims would have contributed similarly to an effort to bring Haiti's buildings up to code some years before the quake?

We also tend to respond with charity to the representation of need, rather than to actual need. The Haiti disaster provoked a massive charitable spasm. The Red Cross alone raised a quarter of a billion dollars. The amount raised for Pakistan was much smaller, even though the Pakistan flood affected roughly 10 times more people. Haiti received more not because it needed more, but because the need was presented better. Haiti is closer, and more open to media coverage. Once the earthquake hit, we were immediately flooded with pictures, and personal stories, and celebrity pleas. Pakistan is far, and difficult to access. Media coverage has been spotty, and our awareness is thus dim. Also, floods are much more common than earthquakes, and hence they provoke a lesser emotional response, and less giving.

Because we depend on emotion to spur us to give, our giving is susceptible to the many distortions that beset our emotional perception. Right now and every day around the world there are people in desperate need, hungry and wounded and dying just like those in Haiti and Pakistan. But their plight is defuse and silent, spread out over continents and over time. It is, in other words, a non-event; boring, not exciting. And boredom does not elicit the empathy required to motivate charitable giving.

While some disaster relief will always be necessary, even in developed countries, one may argue that, morally, if the life of a poor Haitian family is really as worthy as the life of a family in the U.S., then that life should not depend on whether someone in the US woke up in a charitable mood; should not depend on the viral appeal of a YouTube video; should not depend on whether that family's suffering has been successfully bundled into a sufficiently sexy narrative about the latest spectacular disaster. But the very nature of our charitable impulse assures that our charitable giving will continue to depend in large part on the size of our emotional response rather than the size of the actual need. We want to be moved to give. And what moves us often has little to do with the magnitude of suffering or need out there. We see need as we are, not as it is.

Instead of congratulating ourselves yet again on our humanity and kindness as we tweet $10 for the poor Haitians, we should ask real questions about our own individual process of compassion, and whether better ways exist to harness it for genuine, sustained, demonstrable good. Instead of throwing lifelines into the riptide to save the drowning, we may want to figure out how come so many repeatedly end up in the treacherous waters in the first place.