New Internationalist

Giving Reasons

Issue 148

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VOLUNTARY AID [image, unknown] Helping strangers

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Giving reasons
Why do we respond to cries for help on some occasions
and not on others? According to psychologist Phil Richardson
it all depends on what we can get away with.

[image, unknown]
Drawing by Hans-Georg Rauch

PICTURE an infant squatting astride its plastic potty; a parent anxiously awaiting the moment when its child will deliver the goods: ‘Come along sweetheart, do a nice big pooh for mummy . . . ’The child has now learnt to control its bowels. For the first time in its life it has real power - the power to give, or to withhold. It chooses to give and mummy is pleased - and relieved.

This, the child’s first gift, may set the seal upon all subsequent giving. Psychoanalysts believe that its effects spill over into many aspects of personality development. Difficulties associated with it - in the form of harsh potty training, an over-anxious parent, excessive concern with the cleanliness of nappies etc - sow the seeds of the ‘anal personality’: meticulous, controlled, stubborn, clean, and most of all, mean . . . ungiving.

As infants we are essentially amoral; our actions are in large part determined by their consequences. If we are rewarded for an action we tend to repeat it; if we are punished for what we do, we are less likely to do it again.

And this is just as true of the act of giving. If we give our parents love, obedience, or a favourite toy (or that first gift of all) and as a result receive pleasure or avoid pain, then we will give again.

How far do these principles affect us as adults? Do we give to receive some reward, and to avoid punishment’? Or do the moral sensibility and the social awareness we have developed now supplant such base motives?

Having learned of the righteousness of giving, we are aware that not to give may be wrong. Has altruism taken over from self-reward’?

In fact there are likely to be many motives operating simultaneously. In close personal relationships, for example, we may derive pleasure from the act of giving in itself. Affording pleasure to a loved one may in this case be its own reward with self-interest playing little part.

We see this in its purest form in the behaviour of parents towards their children. Here parental love can motivate giving to the point of self-denial. It is sad that we commonly assign such behaviour to the realm of instinct, maternal or paternal, and in doing so rob parents of responsibility and hence credit for their charity. This is not to say that instinct does not impel us to some extent. Animals and birds give in this way - the self-sacrifice of a plover feigning injury to decoy a predator front its nest is hardly based upon a refined moral sense.

‘The love of one adult for another may also be said to engender selfless giving. Yet it is in such relationships that gifts are most likely to be reciprocal. Indeed research has shown that the most satisfying and lasting marriages are those in which we give and receive in equal measure. To acknowledge that our love for another may be founded upon what they give to us may strike us as distasteful, yet it is this principle which forms the basis of an increasingly popular and successful form of marital therapy. In ‘contracting therapy’ the distressed couple negotiate the rewards and punishments due to and from each other and agree, in the form of a written contract, to provide them on a reciprocal basis: ‘1 will make your breakfast if you iron my shirt; if you do not do the ironing you will go hungry’ and so on, So much, you may think, for the lofty idealism of romantic love.

But what of instances in which we give to relative strangers, by helping someone in the street, say? Or when we give to total strangers, as in donating to charity? There is no immediate reward for such acts. Moreover it is hard to envisage personal love as a motive force. Is it here perhaps that moral values come into their own, in the form of Christian charity or the love of humankind? Perhaps so, for our moral sense depends on our capacity to observe our own behaviour and make judgements about what is right and what is wrong - what is ‘moral’.

We can praise and blame ourselves and in doing so generate our own rewards and punishments. If we act in a moral way our self-esteem may be enhanced. And if we fail to act in a moral way we will punish ourselves - our conscience will make us feel guilty. But which of these two predominates - the wish to be right, or the prospect of feeling guilty? I put this question to half a dozen psychologists. They were unanimous in choosing guilt.

Our attitudes to giving and receiving are probably formed at a very early age.
Photo: Peter Miles / Camera Press

When it comes to moral principles, our beliefs and our behaviour are often poorly allied. It is one thing to have altruistic thoughts, quite another to behave altruistically. Take the case of Kitty Genovese. At 3.00 am in a residential area in New York she was stabbed to death by a single assailant in an attack which lasted half an hour. Thirty eight witnesses heard her scream, and at first her attacker ran off. But no-one came to help so he returned to complete the brutal murder, The witnesses were interviewed, They were not apathetic. They were horrified. But no-one moved from the safety of their apartment nor even called the police. Their behaviour was startlingly and tragically at odds with their feelings, Why should this be?

To try to answer this question studies have been carried out in which bogus accidents have been set up and the reactions of passers-by have been noted. It seems that one of the crucial factors determining whether people will stop to help a person in distress is quite simply the number of other people around, The more people there are in the vicinity the less likely it is that any one individual will help, Fear of looking foolish is one possible explanation. ‘Why is no-one else helping?’ Will I be a victim of an elaborate hoax?’ In addition it seems that some diffusion of responsibility occurs: our own responsibility to take action diminishes the more it is shared by others.

So moral attitudes do not in themselves give rise to moral behaviour, Humans are rather more pragmatic it seems, The sobering truth of this is highlighted by a recent study carried out in an American Christian seminary. A group of theological students was asked to read the parable of the Good Samaritan. Each then had to prepare a short talk on it. They then had to go one by one to another building in order to tape-record their talk.

As they left the first building half the students were told that they were late and had to hurry. The others were left to go at their own pace. Each student encountered en route a faked incident in which an apparent victim lay slumped across the pavement moaning. Hidden observers noted whether the student stopped to help. Overall, they discovered, only 40 per cent did so, The majority walked on - several treading over the victim in order to reach their destination. In the group who thought they were late only 10 per cent came to the victim’s aid.

Each of these students was alone so there was no element of ‘diffusion of responsibility’. Each was a committed Christian. Yet the simple and mundane fact of being in a hurry to keep an appointment prevented 90 per cent of them from acting in accordance with the very parable they had just been reading.

Similar experiments have established that people in general will behave altruistically if they think they won’t get away with not doing so. The greater the chances of being criticised by others for not helping someone in need, the more helpful we become.

Studies of this kind raise serious questions about the extent to which our goodwill towards our fellows is enough to ensure that it gets translated into action, Whilst we may feel warm, sympathetic and ‘giving’, the act of giving itself seems to require more to motivate it than the feeling alone.

When it comes to donations to most forms of charity the ‘victims’ we are helping are even further removed than the stooges in the street. Our individual responsibility for the condition of starving children in Ethiopia, say, is so diffuse that we are usually one of many millions who might contribute to the alleviation of their plight. Moreover life creates numerous pragmatic blocks to giving - to make us more like the 90 per cent of hurrying theological students and less like the ten per cent.

How can we be criticised for not replying to a postal request for contributions to voluntary aid, and by whom? Here of course our capacity to criticise ourselves comes into play. Were the psychologists right? Is guilt the key? Basking in the warm glow of self-congratulatory contemplation may help to reward us for our apparently selfless giving when we have made a donation to charity. I seems unlikely however that the anticipation of such a moral luxury would have beet enough to stir us into positive action in the first place. More likely that conscience - the anticipation of guilt - got hold of us and for once stopped us rushing off for another late appointment.

The implications for charitable organisations are clear. It is not enough to educate us about the plight of the disadvantaged. To nurture within us feelings of compassion and charity. To further their objectives - to make us act - they must also turn their attention the less seemly side of our nature. The wish to avoid guilt, however selfish this may be, can generate good actions.

Phil Richardson is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School in London.


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