Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

When you reach farther, it goes further

August 4th, 2011

Reaching outMy readers tend to be do-gooders in the best sense of the word, but sometimes the hardest part is deciding what good to do. So many individuals, charities and organizations need assistance, and each of us is only one person. How to choose, and how to make the most impact?

To my surprise, a study published a couple of weeks ago can actually help with that decision. A team led by Marlone Henderson did a series of experiments that showed that some kinds of generosity inspire more philanthropy from observers than others do.

Henderson’s group told their study participants about some specific charitable actions by others, then asked them to contribute time or money toward a charitable program. They were testing several possibilities:

  1. Would people give more if they were told about generous actions done by people very similar to themselves?
  2. Would they give more if the people they saw helping were similar or different from the people being helped?
  3. Would it make a difference if the participants were asked to help in a different way than the people they were told about (for example, donating money instead of time, or to a different type of organization)?

One result was unexpected: similarity between the people in the example and the study participants didn’t seem to make a difference. For example, students told about the charitable actions of other students at their university didn’t give any more or less than those told about the actions of students on the other side of the world.

What did make a difference was the “social distance” between the helpers and those helped – the degree to which they were unaffiliated or dissimilar. In several experiments, people were more generous with their time and money when they read about people helping those with whom they had nothing in common.

It didn’t matter who was doing the helping. It didn’t matter whether the study participants were asked to help in the same way or a completely different way – or to help a completely different organization. Learning that someone was behaving generously toward distant others made people want to help more themselves.

Rajkishuri, Nirmila, Chadana and KamlaI’m sure you can think of ways to use this observation to help your own charitable or volunteer organization attract more contributions. Bring attention to the distant good done by your donations or volunteers. Point out the differences between your people and their beneficiaries (“an American businesswoman is helping a Nigerian girl learn to read”). Turn more of your resources toward helping those far away – especially as they are often the ones who most desperately need the help.

I’ve mentioned before that we humans tend to be pretty tribal. Sometimes it’s easier to help our neighbours… but maybe it’s time to enlarge our neighbourhood.

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