Though we have more access to certain resources and comforts than at any other time in human history, we also have unprecedented knowledge of the scale of human suffering. The number of people that need our help always exceeds the number that we can help; we are liable to feel overwhelmed, inadequate, and perhaps even cruel for choosing to help one group over another. How can we navigate this tricky task of distributing compassion?
Dr. Paul Slovic is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and a founder and President of Decision Research. He studies human judgment, decision making, and the psychology of risk. With colleagues worldwide, he has developed methods to describe risk perceptions and measure their impacts on individuals and society. His recent work examines “psychic numbing” and the failure to respond to mass human tragedies.
In this sermon given on Rosh Hashana at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon, Dr. Slovic examines the emotional reactions and rules of thumb that often drive our decisions in this area. Though it is impossible to impartially gauge the impact of our giving, we can at least break through the misconception that we can’t make a difference.Read Transcript
Rabbi Ruhi Rubenstein: So, we are kicking off our Scientists in Synagogues programming with Dr. Paul Slovic giving the D’var Torah today about how the insights from moral psychology relate to the experience of Hagar and Ishmael at the well, from our Torah reading. And, if you would like more information about the future upcoming Scientists in Synagogues programming, we’re going to be having a seminar that continues to explore these topics beginning in November. There is a flyer available out in the social hall somewhere, you can ask Nina where it is. Or me, she’ll tell me and then you could ask me. So for now, thank you to Dr. Paul Slovic. I hope you all enjoy his talk.
Dr. Paul Slovic: Shana tovah. The story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar in today’s Torah reading has many interesting twists and turns from which to contemplate the topic. That’s the theme of this Scientists in Synagogues seminar series that Rabbi Ruhi just told you about. The topic of that series is “Compassion and Obligation in Psychology and Judaism.”
Today, I’m going to briefly discuss one particular aspect of the Torah reading that connects to psychological research that my colleagues and I have done, trying to understand what motivates people to help others in need, and why we help in some cases and not in others.
Recall the point in the reading where Hagar and her son Ishmael are cast out into the wilderness with little to sustain them but a bit of bread and a cask of water. These meager provisions were quickly consumed, and the pair wandered in the desert without sustenance, growing weaker. Hagar left Ishmael in a bush, and, unable to watch him die, moved away from him. She raised her voice and wept. We can feel her sense of hopelessness and despair. But then God intervened to “open her eyes,” and she noticed nearby a well, most likely a spring, and she quickly filled the empty sack of water with water and saved her son.
It’s interesting that God didn’t simply just revive Ishmael directly through divine power, but rather, enabled Hagar to recognize an effective solution and action that she could take to rescue him. But it’s not always so easy to appreciate how effective our actions will be when we try to help others. I will return to this point about effectiveness in a minute.
Let’s flash forward to today’s world, where there are so many people in need. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless because of the enormity of problems such as homelessness and food insufficiency in our own community, or the tens of millions of refugees forced by violence, and increasingly by climate change, to flee their homes and wander their wilderness. Despite our sincere concerns and desire to help, hopelessness paralyzes many of us. Our attention strays and we turn to address more manageable issues in our daily lives.
What might a psychological scientist in a synagogue say about this? I’ll give it a try.
In 1994, I carefully followed the reports of the genocide occurring in Rwanda, where some 800,000 people were murdered in about 100 days. I was shocked by the indifference of the American public to this terrible news, and angered by the refusal of the world’s governments to intervene and stop the bloodshed.
After the Rwandan genocide, my colleagues and I decided to study why we are so often indifferent to genocide and other mass atrocities and fail to intervene to prevent them from occurring.
By coincidence with the story of Hagar and Ishmael, our first study involved water and wells. Those who survived the genocide in Rwanda fled to the safety of refugee camps on the border of what was then Chad. In one camp, many became sick with cholera because they lacked clean water, and they began to die from that disease. There was a desperate need for equipment to drill wells that could provide safe drinking water to the refugees.
So we saw this event in the news, and we designed a study based on it. So in our study, we asked participants like yourselves to play the role of a government official in a neighboring country who had enough money to drill new wells sufficient to provide clean water to 4,500 Rwandan refugees in the camp, thus keeping them healthy and alive. But you, as a government official, could instead use the money for building schools or roads or medical facilities in your own country.
What would you do? Would you send the money to drill new wells? That was our question we asked.
So we split our study participants into two groups. One group was told that their camp had 250,000 refugees. The second group was told that the camp had 11,000 refugees. The new wells would protect 4,500 refugees in either camp.
What we found was that participants in our studies, acting as government officials, were far more likely to decide to provide equipment to help 4,500 people in the small camp. This confirmed our hypothesis that the perceived effectiveness of this lifesaving action would be determined more by the percentage of people helped, obviously greater in the small camp, than by the actual number of people helped, which was the same in both camps.
We then did another study, this time asking people to make a real donation to a charity in order to help a starving child, who was identified with her name, photo and the country where she lived. We convened a second group of people, participants, and gave them the same opportunity to donate to this child. In order to increase the donations, we gave additional information to those in the second group, calling attention to the fact that the problem was very important – millions of people were starving in the region where the child lived. Our manipulation failed. In fact, donations dropped almost in half when donors were told that the child was one of millions in need.
In reflecting on these two studies, we came to appreciate the role that our feelings of effectiveness play in motivating us to help those in need.
We help others not only because they need our help, but because we feel good when we help. We get kind of a warm glow of satisfaction when we do something good for others, for someone. But we don’t feel our efforts are effective, and we don’t expect to get that warm glow, when we help only a small percentage of those in need, as in the large refugee camp, or when we help only one child out of millions. A mere drop in the bucket, we may think. So then we don’t help, even though we could.
Let me give you one more example of this. In another study, we found that all it took to stop some people from donating to a child they could actually help was to learn that there was one other child they were not helping. Not millions, not thousands, as in the first the first two studies I described, just one child not helped created bad feelings and a sense of inadequacy that dampened the warm glow. It didn’t feel as good to help the child they could help, so they didn’t help that child. This is wrong! Just because we can’t help everyone doesn’t mean we should help no one. We gave a name to this deception of our feelings: we called it “pseudoinefficacy”, a false sense of inefficacy, false because we really could do something that was meaningful and worthwhile.
Perhaps you’re wondering “why should we trust our feelings to motivate us when they behave so irrationally?” This is a great question. Well, we trust our feelings to guide our behavior because most of the time, relying on our feelings actually works well to guide us efficiently through our daily tasks, and helps us make good decisions. But reliance on feelings doesn’t always work well, as we’ve seen in the studies I describe. The lesson here is to focus your thoughts on what you can accomplish and its importance, rather than dwell on what you can’t do, because that may make you feel badly and stop you from doing something worthwhile.
My colleagues and I have created a website called The Arithmetic of Compassion – please check it out – to create awareness of the strange ways our minds sometimes deceive us into thinking our efforts to help others are not worthwhile, when indeed they are truly meaningful and important. On the website, we feature the starfish story that many of you likely know, originally told by Loren Eisley, a famous American anthropologist, philosopher and science writer. Here’s what he wrote:
“While wandering a deserted beach at dawn. . . I saw a man in the distance bending and throwing as he walked the endless stretch toward me. As he came near, I could see that he was throwing starfish, abandoned on the sand by the tide, back into the sea. When he was close enough I asked him why he was working so hard at this strange task. He said that the sun would dry the starfish and they would die. I said to him that I thought he was foolish. There were thousands of starfish on miles and miles of beach. One man alone could never make a difference. He smiled as he picked up the next starfish. Hurling it far into the sea he said, ‘It makes a difference for this one.’ I abandoned my writing and spent the morning throwing starfish.”
Returning to today’s reading, it is significant that God didn’t simply revive Ishmael directly through some divine power, but rather opened Hagar’s eyes to an effective action she could take to save her son.
As we begin this new year, there are millions like Hagar and Ishmael wandering their personal wildernesses in search of survival and needing aid. We learn from the Torah not to expect divine intervention to rescue them. We need to act ourselves, as did Hagar. We need to open our eyes so as not to be dragged to the depths of despair that felled Hagar. And I take this eye-opening to mean becoming alert to the possible ways that we may be able to help others in need by taking direct action ourselves, or by working with and offering financial support to some of the many fine organizations that are dedicated to addressing humanitarian crises in our community, or around the world, and are doing heroic work.
But some of the actions that become apparent to us may not be a simple, as fully effective, as going to the nearby well was for Hagar. In that case, science can open our eyes, too, by alerting us to the ways that our minds can fool us into thinking that our actions won’t matter, when in fact they do. What we learn from science is that we should not be discouraged from doing whatever we can, even when we cannot fill the entire need. As in the starfish story, even partial solutions can save whole lives.
Rabbi Ruhi Rubenstein: Thank you so much, Dr. Paul Slovic.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This post is adapted from a sermon delivered at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon).