Part II: Understanding “normal” giving behavior

Part II: Understanding “normal” giving behavior

This is Part II of a three-part blog series on how to achieve our giving goals. Read also Part I and Part III.

For a variety of sociocultural and psychological reasons, it is often “normal” or “human nature” to avoid caring about or providing help to those living in abject poverty in the developing world.

One reason for the poverty/giving disconnect is that our brains are not equipped to focus on multiple variables simultaneously, so we prioritize those needing immediate attention. This can explain at least part of why we have trouble keeping in mind what the global poor are going through when our teenage child is having a social crisis, or our spouse wants a kitchen remodel. To use Daniel Kahneman's language, our daily lives use “system 1” thinking, whereas “system 2” thinking would likely facilitate living more in line with our values and goals.

When we are able to register need beyond our inner circles, the natural human tendency towards parochialism drives us to notice it first in our own communities and country even though there is relatively greater need globally.

Another aspect of this “normal” pattern is “psychic numbing.” Local problems such as homelessness, food insecurity, and inadequate schools, though serious, often seem fixable. On the other hand, the scope of global extreme poverty can appear to be so great that we feel paralyzed about how to help. It’s been found that a donor is much more inclined to give to support one needy individual than many; when presented with greater numbers, we become less generous. A recent "New York Times" opinion piece discussed this phenomenon that contributes to our insensitivity to large-scale suffering.

Al Gore has referred to “inconvenient truths” in his discussion of environmental threats to our well-being and the very existence of life on our planet. Similarly, it is more than a little “inconvenient” to be regularly aware of all we have while millions around the world live in a constant state of danger and disease and to think about what we should do to address such large-scale social problems, especially when we consider ourselves to be caring individuals.  The emotional turmoil that frequently ensues when we do not live up to our values provides a strong incentive to push our ideals and this cognitive dissonance into the background, allowing the day-to-day concerns of our lives to facilitate this process.

There are numerous other explanations for lack of attention to actualizing our core philanthropic values. In his book, The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer, the world-renowned ethicist, outlines many of these factors as they relate to giving focused on saving lives and eliminating suffering among the global poor.  

I see two additional explanations for this avoidance phenomenon, which can be illustrated via Singer’s famous thought experiment about our impulse to save lives:

A small girl is drowning in a shallow pond.  Would you jump in and save her although you are wearing a very expensive pair of shoes that will be ruined?  What if she was of a race and social class different from yours?  Of course you would still save her in either circumstance!  Yet each day, 16,000 children* around the world die of preventable causes – just like the little girl would if you didn’t save her. (Singer 46-62)

*When The Life You Can Save was published in 2009, 22,000 children died each day from diseases of poverty; as of 2016 that number has declined to 16,000 children.)

The “normal” response when we see the girl in the pond is of course to jump in and save her.  Yet our “normal” response when a child or children are not right in front of us is to rationalize not “jumping into the pond,” so to speak. Why?

One difference between rushing to help a child in front of us versus considering children in other countries is that we do not fully believe that these children can actually be saved by our individual actions or donations. Even if experts verify that a charitable organization saves lives by providing anti-malarial nets or restoring vision or providing family planning assistance, it can be hard to conceive the good that is being done because we are not witnessing or physically, viscerally, experiencing it ourselves (as we would at the hypothetical pond, or as we do if the people being helped are in our immediate communities).

Another difference inhibiting donors from providing more support for global charities is concern about negative consequences. People envision that if we in developed countries assist those in developing countries, there can be negative consequences that would cancel or outweigh the value of saving these lives, such as neo-colonialism, overpopulation, or undermining of local governments.

All of the above are powerful factors behind reluctance or ambivalence to supporting anti-global poverty efforts. Many of us, when we stop to think about it, do feel that human lives everywhere have equal value and that ideally, we should all be helping to improve and save as many lives as we can. But the effect of these “normal” denial/rationalization processes distance us from our complicity in failing to help prevent disease and death that could be reduced by our dollars when given to proven, effective charities. These processes all serve to quiet the “cognitive dissonance” that then facilitates us more comfortably being grossly negligent relative to the value we place on the sanctity of human life.  

Normative behavior is very often seen as a reflection of “human nature,” as if it is immutable.  The concept of “human nature” is all too often invoked as an explanation, or justification, for our complicity and complacency. Yet normative behavior all too often endangers others needlessly. The world’s most pressing problems will go unsolved and worsen if people just behave “normally.”  

The fact is that most of what we refer to as “human nature” is actually only the way humans behave within a particular historical and cultural context. We have the power to rise above the collective pull of “normative” thinking, as well as biologically-determined predispositions.

Previous: Part I: Escaping Normal

Next: Part III: How to Change Your Giving Behavior and Achieve Your Personal Best

Share this story:

Related stories:


About the author:

Charles Bresler

Co-founder, Board Member

After earning a PhD in Social and Clinical Psychology, Charlie Bresler became director of behavioral medicine for The California School of Professional Psychology, Fresno (CSPP-F), where he was a full-time professor and founder of a teaching clinic for anxiety & stress disorders. In 1993, he was recruited by The Men’s Wearhouse, where he went on to be head of human resources, stores, marketing, and, ultimately, president. He stepped down in 2008 to fulfill his long-standing desire to work directly on social and economic issues, not too long after he read Peter Singer’s book, The Life You Can Save. Catalyzed by the concept, Charlie reached out to Peter and proposed combining Peter’s theory with the formation of a nonprofit to advance Peter’s ideas and to raise money for high-impact, cost-effective organizations. Together, they founded The Life You Can Save, where Charlie took on all organizational operations as executive director until 2024. He was supported in this work and in his financial support for the organization by his wife Diana, a family physician, and executed the role pro bono.

The views expressed in blog posts are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Peter Singer or The Life You Can Save.