Why bother doing anything meaningful? A psychologist’s perspective on Meaning conference.

A couple of weeks ago the annual Meaning conference took place in Brighton. If you’ve never heard of this brilliant event, as I hadn’t until recently, take a look at their website here. In their own words the event “connects and inspires a community of people who believe in better business” and has become “an annual gathering point for forward-thinking people who aren’t satisfied with the status quo”. Talks centred around ways to make business protect the planet and benefit the many, not just the few .

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Setting the stage

I was very wrong in thinking this would be a collection of employees with corporate social responsibility under their remit, ticking a box for their company. Almost everyone I spoke to had taken a day’s holiday to attend and paid the ticket fee themselves. Many had been in previous years and were really excited for the next event. One person wanted it to happen every month!

The question of why so many people gave up their time and money to attend is representative of the wider question of why we do anything to help anyone else. The answer may seem obvious – of course we should help others, it’s our moral responsibility. How could we not? As much as I agree with these answers, helping is actually very strange when you think about it in the context of our evolution.

Generosity and prosocial behaviours have puzzled psychologists trying to decipher the biology behind these actions and how it evolved. They don’t really fit with a “survival of the fittest” rule which traditionally favours selfishness. The two main explanations for being nice to people centre on those people either being genetically related to you or able to return the favour. However, in the globalised business world, these explanations can’t account for kindness to people you’ll never meet or, in the case of climate change, may not even be alive yet.

Luckily our basic ability to care for others, seen most strongly towards friends and family, can be extended to more distant others, although this requires more conscious effort. The importance of being social creatures has also cemented the ability of social interactions to activate our brain’s reward systems, more traditionally associated with rewards such as food or addictive drugs. The extent to which both of these things happen are highly dependent on the context, so what does Meaning do to maximise the appetite for prosocial business?

Having an impact

Prosocial actions, like making a donation to charity, have been shown to generate reward activity in the brain in line with the “warm glow” of giving. Importantly, it seems we do actually care about the outcome for others, rather than just giving to look like a good person. Evidence that this warm glow comes from the positive impact we’ll make on someone’s life suggests the bigger the impact, the better we’ll feel and so the more likely we are to give again. One workshop at Meaning by The Life You Can Save directly addressed this by getting participants to think about the causes and organisations they can give to, in order to achieve the biggest impact. More generally, businesses are well placed to have a significant impact and someone motivated to bring about positive change may achieve something bigger by influencing their organisation that going it alone.

Storytelling

As it does take conscious effort and attention to broaden our circles of caring to more distant others, we’re more likely to do so when information is delivered in a way we can easily digest. Telling stories is a great example of this. Just think how stories in books and films capture our hearts and emotions. At Meaning it was the speakers who told stories who really stood out to me. Jo Berry told the powerful story of extending empathy and understanding to the man who killed her father. Oliver Maxwell tied the story of his beekeeping company to descriptions of bees’ traits, giving amusing metaphors. Finally, Juliet Davenport and Hilary Jones told us about their companies, Good Energy and Lush Cosmetics respectively, through the stories from their development history to future plans. (Some talks available by clicking the speaker’s name.)

Nowhere was the importance of storytelling more obvious than in Clare Patey’s talk and the accompanying exhibition of the Empathy Museum. This innovative art project gives the opportunity to literally walk in someone’s shoes by physically wearing a pair, while you listen to the owner’s story. They tour and exhibit all over the world, details here.

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Clare Patey talking about the Empathy Museum

The social factor

Another highlight of the conference for me was lunch and not just because the food was incredible. The organisers made a big effort to emphasise that lunch is for “big talk not small talk” with cards on the tables giving interesting conversation prompts. Meeting people who think in a similar way to us is particularly rewarding based on our desire to fit in and get along with others. As attendees are self-described as not going along with the status quo, this aspect is likely to be particularly powerful. One person told me the event made him feel part of something greater which ties into the previous point about having a bigger impact when we work as a team. Meeting people who are doing inspiring things also gives us motivation and a support network to do something influential ourselves.

From the feedback and support they receive from loyal attendees, the Meaning organising team should be pretty aware already they are onto something great with this conference. By combining factors which tap into some of our basic psychological and neural mechanisms they are motivating people to team up and take on business as usual. With everything that’s happened this year, this is exactly what is needed to keep us optimistic!

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A hole in humanity?

What do a giant hole, volunteering in Africa and the ice bucket challenge have in common?

 

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Logo and website by Cards Against Humanity / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

 

Unless you’ve had your head in a hole for the past week you will have been aware of “Black Friday”. The company behind the “party game for horrible people”, Cards Against Humanity has developed a tradition for “alternative” Black Friday celebrations. Two years ago, they sold literal b*llsh*t – a box of cow poo – for $6. Over 30,000 people snapped up this deal. Then last year for $5, customers could buy nothing. The employees simply kept the $71,000 and posted a list of what each had spent their share on.

This year’s Holiday Hole campaign raised $100,573 to dig a giant pointless hole which, this video confirms, was dug on Sunday. This raises quite a few questions including why thousands of people wasted their money on a pointless hole. And perhaps more importantly, why didn’t the company spend the money on something more worthwhile, such as a charitable donation?

Considering the latter, it’s clearly not because they are opposed to charity, having previously raised millions of dollars for various causes. So did the organisers of the Holiday Hole campaign have a moral obligation to give away this sum too? Personally, I don’t think we can blame them. All they did was give people the opportunity to give money towards digging a hole. With over 1 million charitable organisations in the USA alone, it’s not like people needed an additional opportunity to give. As a tweet so brilliantly summed up:

 

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Tweet by George MacKerron

 

Ice bucket challenge

So this brings us to the question of why people would spend money on a pointless hole rather than anything else, including a charity donation. I think a big part of the answer links to wanting to be involved with something unique and (arguably) funny and be the sort of person who gets involved with such things. This is pure speculation but I bet a lot of the people that gave towards the hole told others about it, either through social media or face to face. And this is where the ice bucket challenge link comes in because I would guess similar mechanisms were at play there. It was something people were talking about, something very obvious to post on social media, and the charity element gave people a “good person” reputation on top of being a bit daring.

As it was already a good cause, not many people questioned the decision of giving to ALS or motor neurone disease charities, rather than other organisations. As well as the fact they were doing a good thing, I think this is likely to be because the challenge, started by the ALS Association, gave people the decision: donate to ALS Association or don’t give and keep the money. In the same way, the Holiday Hole campaign offered a choice between hole or no hole. Even though they could have given the money to charity, there was no explicit third option of donating which people ignored. This is an example of compartmentalising, our tendency to separate our spending into separate chunks and don’t see one chunk as affecting another.

So perhaps the money towards the hole came from the “doing fun things” pot of money, which is seen as separate from the “charitable donations” pot. Just because someone has money to spend on things they don’t need, does not mean they will be equally motivated to spend this spare cash on different alternatives. If the option to dig a hole hadn’t been given to them, it’s unlikely they would have given the money to a charity instead. They wouldn’t have been motivated to give by feeling fun and quirky or having an amusing story to tell others.

Barbie Saviour

This is where I also see parallels with the criticisms of “voluntourism” trips that the person going abroad to volunteer should have simply given the cost of their flights, accommodation etc to a charity to employ local people to do the work. The organisations they work through didn’t give them that third option in the decision and there’s a good reason why. People get much more out of jetting off to help rather than putting the same amount of effort into just fundraising the money. Not just the experience but also the sense of identity from being someone who does good things and makes sure others know about it. (See Barbie Saviour for a parody of social media posts on voluntourism). Having an option there to give all the money and stay at home, reframes the decision. The most beneficial option becomes giving money and potential volunteers may be put off wanting to do something second best as it draws attention to their motivation to get something out of it themselves.

All of these examples suggest that when we make a decision between two alternatives, we often do so without considering any other options. It then becomes pointless to suggest other options after the decision has been made because the third option is not what motivated the action. In cases where the decision resulted in something beneficial but perhaps not the most beneficial, it is easy to argue the person should have done the most beneficial thing instead. However, as this is not the decision that was presented, you cannot assume that someone would have been equally motivated to do the best thing for whatever reason. It is a challenge for charities to make the most beneficial and the most motivating option the same option.

A helpful hole?

It is also hypocritical to criticise only a handful of decisions for being wasteful rather than beneficial. We probably only notice this issue in a few cases because compartmentalising comes so naturally to us. When was the last time you challenged yourself or others for buying bottled water or some other unnecessary luxury as the money could have gone to charity? Why do people who decided to buy a bigger TV or newer iPhone on Black Friday escape the criticism aimed at the Holiday Hole? Maybe we should all bear in mind that some things are worth spending money on, even if they are in a different compartment or outside the options of the decision you’re making. So next time you go to spend spare money, take a moment longer to think what else you could do with it. If the Holiday Hole could inspire this reflection, maybe it was worth $100,000.

Charity is not (always) evil

This post is a (very delayed) response to a friend’s blog on the evils of charity. I’d recommend reading the original post by Daniel Noon here first before continuing with my response.

As someone about to spend three years studying the psychology and neuroscience of giving to charity with the aim of increasing giving, I clearly think charities are good things. However, this does not mean I think charities as organisations are perfect or that the system is flawless. Some of the points below in defence of charities only apply to certain ways of giving. That said, if you’re reading this blog and have a computer and internet and a western salary you could probably donate enough to charity right now to save someone’s life (find out how rich you are here). I think that alone means charities are something worth keeping.

So to consider Daniel’s points one by one:

The first reason to dislike charity is because charitable giving promotes immoral behaviour.

The moral licencing effect (doing something immoral after a good deed, such as giving to charity) could arguably cancel out the good deed as Daniel suggests. However, there is nothing to show these two opposing acts must be of equal importance. Imagine I change someone’s life with a charity gift which pays for a child to go to school, then don’t hold the door open for someone. Even the person who’s just had a door slam in their face would agree I’ve done more good than harm overall.

This idea that the good can significantly outweigh the bad is particularly true for the large number of charitable gifts made by direct debit. Even if someone felt licenced to act immorally after signing up to their charitable gift, many people forget about the gift being processed each month, so will continue to do good without licencing immoral acts.

There is also evidence that the moral licencing effect can be overcome if someone feels their good deed is reflective of their generous personality, rather than feeling sanctimonious and so less likely act morally in future. Most importantly, in these situations, good deeds such as charitable gifts can become increasingly frequent as the person develops an identity as a moral person. Surely this increase in morality generally is a good thing?

The second reason to dislike charity is that it is affected by the biases of individuals.

Bias in charitable giving is a huge problem, I certainly agree with Daniel on this. In fact, a key aim of my (and many other’s) research is to understand and minimise these biases. However, I don’t think the existence of bias means we should scrap charitable giving altogether.

Daniel’s idea to make charitable organisations work across race, gender, sexuality or religion could dramatically decrease the amounts given to charities. If people give to charities which represent those similar to themselves, they are unlikely to support organisations which lack this specificity. In such a situation, minority groups may lose out the most, as they arguably feel stronger connections to charities representing their interests than the majority. It cannot be assumed that because someone gives to an LGBT+ rights charity, they would equally support a general human rights charity.

Rather than denying people the opportunity to give to organisations they identify with, it may be better to encourage people to give in a more objective way. In recognition of the biases affecting charitable giving (read “Against Empathy” by Paul Bloom here for a far better summary of the issue than I could give, and equally fascinating responses from a range of academics and practitioners), a movement has developed in recent years called Effective Altruism. Put simply, the aim of this movement is to do as much good as possible with the money given to charity, with the starting point that all lives are equal (some limit this to all human lives, others extend to animals too). In using rationality and academic research to judge the areas in which a charitable gift will make the biggest difference, Effective Altruism aims to eliminate much of the bias in giving. Gifts based on objective need lack the bias introduced by subjective identity motivations.

The third reason to dislike charity is because it relies on an ineffective and unaccountable system of funding allocation.

As above, I completely agree with this point in principle, but don’t agree it renders the process of charitable giving itself evil or to be abandoned. Instead, we need to work to improve the system and again, suggestions of how to do this have been given by Effective Altruism. A key issue in increasing accountability and proportional allocation in charitable giving is that very few organisations have data on the outcomes of their initiatives. This is partly due to a lack of demand from society. It is bizarre that when we buy a product such as a phone we expect solid numbers on performance to judge what we are getting for our money, but when it comes to charity we often have no idea what our money is achieving.

By conducting research on the functions and outcomes of charitable organisations it is possible to calculate which organisation will be able to do the most good with the specific donation we are about to give. If a charity is over-funded, this additional £10 is unlikely to be as effective as if given to an under-funded organisation. This monitoring is constantly updated; for example, a very effective charity, the Against Malaria Foundation is strongly promoted by Effective Altruism groups. However, it received so many donations from this promotion that each additional gift became less effective, so the same groups advised against further donations while some of this money was spent. It’s now back to being one of the top-rated charities around and you can read about the amazing impact of donations here. This monitoring also enables accountability as charities not achieving what they could or should be can be challenged.

The fourth reason to dislike charity is because it goes against democracy.

Without getting into debates about what democracy means, a key component is choice and with charitable giving, we can choose how to spend our money. Government tax often does not provide that choice, for example, my money being used to bomb Syria. Also, in the UK our votes are not equal due to the voting system.

Moving swiftly away from those issues, many charitable organisations work to improve democracy in direct and indirect ways. For example, campaigning groups like Amnesty International hold undemocratic governments to account, while other charitable initiatives allow people to participate in democracy through education and covering pressing needs. Someone is unlikely to get involved in politics and democracy when they’re working two jobs just to get by. Even if we scrapped the whole charity sector, rich people in society would still have more influence in a variety of ways and far less would be being done to help those less well-off to increase their influence.

Conclusion

I agree in large part with Daniel’s conclusion that “instead of considering charitable giving as a virtue of individuals, we should consider a symptom of a failed state”. This is particularly pertinent in relation to the UK which has seen increases in child poverty and working families accessing food banks, amongst other things, in recent years. On a global scale, we should not live in a world in which millions of people die of preventable causes or struggle to survive. However, if we all stopped giving to charity tomorrow, these issues would get far worse.

A related issue with giving to charity arises if it obscures attempts to create more systemic change to prevent suffering, such as fair wages and eliminating exploitation. However, these actions are not necessarily in competition with charitable giving and can be combined to create more certain and instant benefits to others. Charitable gifts are beneficial alongside actions towards larger scale, but harder to achieve, changes in the future. Many of Daniel’s arguments against charitable giving are valid, but should prompt improvements not abandonment of the system as a whole.

Are you a true altruist or driven by self-interest? Brain scan may give verdict

Jo Cutler, University of Sussex and Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, University of Sussex

[For my first post here is a piece I co-authored with my supervisor for The Conversation, a website of journalism style pieces written by academics working in the field. I’d definitely recommend having a look at their other articles.]

The reason why we help others at a cost to ourselves has long presented a puzzle for scientists. Why do some of us do it more than others? And are we doing it because we are truly moved by the suffering of others or simply because we feel we ought to return a favour or even get something in return? Looking at behaviour alone, it can be hard to tell. Both empathy and the principle of reciprocity – giving to return a favour or expecting others to do so – are proposed explanations for altruism which have been impossible to separate until now.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures blood flow changes in the brain, a new study suggests that specific differences in connectivity between brain regions can predict whether someone is an empathy-driven altruist, a reciprocity-driven altruist – or just selfish.

In the experiment, 34 female participants were divided into two groups. Those in the “empathy” group witnessed an actor receive painful electric shocks – and received shocks themselves (so they knew it hurt). In the “reciprocity” group, participants were paired up with actors who kindly paid money so the participant received fewer shocks (although both groups received the same number of shocks overall).

Ulterior motive or clean conscience?
Chris Yarzab/Flickr, CC BY-SA

 

Next, their brains were scanned. During the scanning, participants were asked to split a sum of money between themselves and another person. For the empathy group, the other person receiving the money was sometimes the partner they saw shocked. In the reciprocity group, the person was sometimes the partner who paid for the participant to receive fewer shocks. At other times, participants were simply asked to split the cash between themselves and a neutral person who neither received shocks nor did anything nice. The researchers could therefore divide the participants into those empathy-driven altruists and reciprocity-driven altruists based on the first part of the experiment. They could also use the way participants split the money in the second part to identify selfish individuals among these participants.

Unsurprisingly, the initial analysis showed that participants gave, on average, larger sums of money to the empathy and reciprocity partners than to the neutral partner – and that both groups were equally generous. Those that most regularly chose splits involving more money for themselves than the other were classified as “selfish”. But this was just the starting point. The researchers used a complex and sophisticated follow-up to gain deeper insight.

Ventral striatrum and anterior cingulate.

By looking at the timing of activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (known for a host of functions from pain and conflict to learning), the anterior insula cortex (associated with arousal and emotion) and the ventral striatum (associated with rewards and learning), the researchers created models of how information was passed between these areas. Then a computer algorithm tried to guess, based on these models, whether an individual’s altruistic decision had been motivated by empathy or by reciprocity. The high accuracy of these guesses at 77% shows the two groups of participants had brain activity patterns that differed enough to classify.

In empathy-driven altruism, the anterior insula (emotion and arousal) and ventral striatum (rewards) showed a lower than average connectivity, while reciprocity-driven altruism showed increased connectivity between these regions. Connectivity in this sense can be imagined as how much one area is “talking to” another. Although the functions of these areas are broadly known, the meaning of changes in connectivity is still difficult to interpret.

Insular cortex.

The results also showed differences in brains of those who had been classified as selfish or altruistic based on their decisions. Selfish individuals showed lower than average connectivity from the anterior cingulate cortex to the anterior insula whereas altruists had increased connectivity between these regions.

Can we learn to be more altruistic?

When it comes to implications, the differences between primarily selfish or primarily altruistic participants may be the most important finding. Inducing empathy, by seeing someone shocked, increased giving and associated neural connectivity for selfish individuals – they were more generous to the shocked partners than to the neutral person. The altruistic people, however, shared just as much with the neutral person as the shocked partner. The opposite was true for the reciprocity effect: increased giving to the partner who paid to prevent their shocks was seen in altruistic but not selfish participants.

One could speculate that this implies that altruistic participants are already giving because of empathic motivation, so increasing empathy makes no difference – they are at their “empathy capacity”. Similarly, selfish participants may already be acting due to motivations more likely to benefit themselves too, such as reciprocity.

Research on altruism regularly concludes that people have an empathetic motivation but this paper suggests potential for future studies to check whether this is the case for each individual participant. The authors also open doors to more specific measures and targets for further research on reciprocity and empathy.

The paper shows the importance of analysing subtle differences in brain communication rather than overall activity. Looking at different brain regions working together, rather than in isolation, can identify previously elusive psychological concepts, such as underlying motivations.

Future research is needed on whether these increases in altruism and neural connectivity could last, perhaps with ongoing training. For example, if the techniques used to induce empathy in the study could be employed in some sort of treatment for antisocial behaviour.

However, charities can already make the most of the current findings. They suggest empathy-inducing appeals may be most effective for new supporters, who are not yet “altruistic enough” to donate. Existing supporters, who are already altruistic, may respond more to receiving a token gift they feel they can reciprocate by increasing their donations. The effectiveness of these techniques, already used by many charities, may be explained by the findings. But with limited resources, new insight into cognitive processes that might be harnessed by appeals could help society be a bit more generous.

The Conversation

Jo Cutler, PhD student in Psychology, University of Sussex and Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.