Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Why so urgently in need of urgency?

I heard a great segment today on The Kojo Nnamdi Show, a public radio show that is broadcast here in the DC area on WAMU 88.5 FM.

One of Kojo's guests today was Shankar Vedantam, National Reporter and "Department of Human Behavior" Columnist at The Washington Post. The subject of this section of the show was altruism and charitable giving as a reflection of theories of human behavior (trust me, it gets interesting). The guest referred a number of times to the ideas of Peter Singer, a Princeton University professor and philosopher.

A few random ideas that came up during the broadcast:

  • Lots of people would be willing to jump into a pond to save a drowning child, even if they were wearing $200 shoes that would get ruined. But most people would be reluctant to write a check for $200 to feed a starving child on the other side of the world.
  • People lined up in droves to donate blood after the 9/11 attacks - so much so that many blood banks where overwhelmed and had to throw away excess blood that had been donated. However, today, many blood banks are facing critical, life threatening shortages of several blood types.
  • A typical American would be more likely to donate to a flood victim in Iowa than to a flood victim in southeast Asia, because the person in Iowa is perceived to be a part of the same group, or "tribe." However, both people are strangers! So what's the difference?
Two key ideas that came out of the broadcast - people are generally more likely to give in response to a crisis, even if ongoing needs are just as dire (but may not be perceived as "urgent"); and, people are generally more likely to give to others who are perceived as part of their group or "tribe."

I invite you to listen to the broadcast yourself by going here and clicking the links next to "Dept. of Human Behavior."

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