How we judge others guides how we help others study
Charities often emphasize the desperation and dependence of those they assist — as in heart-tugging videos of starving children in Africa.
Yet a focus on helplessness may change how we choose to help those in need, and not necessarily for the better, according to research by University of California assistant professor Juliana Schroeder.
“Charities want to motivate people to give more, but they may also make people think poor people don’t have the ability to take care of themselves,” says Schroeder, a social psychologist who studies judgment and decision-making as well as interpersonal and inter-group processes.
“If you perceive of someone as having less mental capacity to think or feel, then you are subtly degrading and dehumanizing them.”
In the study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Schroeder and co-authors Adam Waytz of Northwestern University and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago found that people act more paternalistically towards those they believe have lower mental capacity.
What’s more, they found, people often believe they have more mental capacity than do others.
Their findings reveal fundamental truths about how people think about giving and receiving aid. These insights have implications not just for international charity, but also for policies on a wide range of issues, from soda taxes to gun control.
Schroeder and her colleagues conducted a series of nine experiments, making a distinction between paternalistic aid, in which givers make a decision about what recipients need, and agentic aid, in which recipients can decide for themselves what they need.
In the first experiment, they asked people to rate their perceptions of poor people in Kenya and Uganda, using an eight-point scale that measured perceived self-control, memory, planning, thoughtfulness, and cognition.
They then asked subjects to decide whether they’d rather contribute to an agentic charity which transfers money to poor people with no strings attached, or to a more traditional, paternalistic charity such as the Red Cross, which provides food, medicine, and other services.
They found that those who rated the mental capacity of the African aid recipients more highly were also more likely to choose an agnetic charity and less likely to believe the recipients would waste the money.
“When you think of a person having less self-control and willpower, you think they will make bad decisions and will be more likely to waste the aid,” says Schroeder.
“They don’t know what is good for themselves.”
HELPLESSNESS VS ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT
Moreover, the researchers found that people’s ideas about aid recipients’ mental capacity could be easily manipulated.
In another experiment, they gave more than 500 visitors to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry a token representing a dollar, and then asked them to drop it in one of two slots — one for an agnetic charity and the other for a more paternalistic global charity that seeks to alleviate poverty.
Beforehand, they gave participants one of two descriptions about charity recipients: one highlighted their drive and entrepreneurial spirit; the other, their neediness and resignation.
While overall, 58 percent of participants gave to paternalistic versus 42 percent to agnetic charity, those who were told of the recipients’ pluck were 23 percent more likely to choose agnetic charity.
“Even when the recipient group is exactly the same, the information you give someone about them meaningfully influences their giving behavior,” Schroeder says.
DIFFERENT RULES FOR OURSELVES
Schroeder and colleagues also found that when it comes to themselves, however, people tend to prefer a more hands-off approach.
In another set of experiments, they presented participants with a series of policies on issues including healthy eating, credit card debt, retirement savings, and gun control.
They then asked them whether a paternalistic or agentic policy would be more effective for the average citizen, as well as which policy would be more effective for themselves.
Participants were much more likely to choose the paternalistic policy for others. For example, 35 percent recommended a ban on unhealthy foods over a policy of listing calories in restaurants for others, whereas only 28 percent recommended it for themselves.
Likewise, 55 percent recommended mandatory retirement accounts rather than optional accounts for others, versus 39 percent for themselves.
A similar 55 percent recommended bans on certain firearms over a gun safety course for others, but only 39 percent for themselves.
Using statistical analysis, the researchers found that the results were largely determined by how people rated others’ mental capacities versus their own.
“People are pretty convinced they have a lot of willpower, while others don’t have the same level of self-control,” Schroeder says.