How To Be Great By Doing Good

Want to change the world? Great! Before you do though, it’s worth taking a look in the mirror to learn about the biases that each of us has — biases that can derail our efforts to do as much good as we can.

If someone asked you why you do donate to charity or volunteer your time with a non-profit, what would you say? Most of us would probably say we do it because we want to give back, we want to make a difference, or something else along those lines. But that altruistic motivation isn’t the only thing driving us to do good. We also do good because it feels good.

Think about how you felt the last time you gave money to someone in need – you felt a warm glow after donating, didn’t you? Perhaps that’s why it’s often said that giving is its own reward.

The problem is, that desire to feel good from doing good can sometimes lead us to make poor charity decisions. It can lead us to choose where to donate and how to volunteer our time based on what provides the strongest “warm glow” feeling — not on what does the most good. And in the hunt for that lovely feeling, we often favor helping individuals who are similar to us while ignoring those who are in much greater need.

I’m Sticking With The Tribe

Throughout the ages, tribes have been going to battle against other tribes, competing religious sects committing atrocities against one another, certain races enslaving other races, and countries doing battle against one another in wars that end millions of lives. Our brains seem pre-programmed to divide “us” and “them” — and to care a heck of a lot more about the lives and well-being of those in our own group.

We can see that phenomenon on a smaller scale in our own lives. Consider the sense of camaraderie we immediately feel for those who attended the same college as us, and how much more we care about our family members than we do about strangers we pass on the street. This bias to care more about those who are similar to us also spills over into the charity decisions we make.

We’d probably all agree that when we’re doing charity work — be it writing a check to a charity or volunteering our time — the skin color of those we are helping shouldn’t matter. A person is a person. If they’re in need, we ought to care just as much about them whether they are pale white, dark brown, or anything in between. While that’s what most of us would say we believe, our bodies tell a different story. Studies have found that even on neural and physiological levels, we care more about those who are the same race as us.

In one study, participants were put into an fMRI machine and shown images of people who were suffering. When the people in the photos were the same race as the participant, the participant had a much stronger empathetic response. The areas of the brain that have to do with compassion and caring lit up more brightly. When a participant was shown pictures of people who weren’t the same race as he or she was, those areas of the brain were not activated as strongly.

This bias didn’t just travel in one racial direction; for example African-Americans had a more empathetic response when they saw African-Americans who were suffering, and Caucasian participants had a more empathetic response when they saw Caucasians who were suffering. It seems as if evolution has rigged our brains to make us care more about those who are similar to us. This bias happens on an immediate, instinctual level, even before we get to the realm of conscious decision-making. And it’s not just racial differences that lead us to care more about certain causes and people and to care less about others.

The Bias To Care More About Those Who Area Similar To Us In Our Charity Work

The bias to care more about those who are similar to us spills over to the world of charity as well. Consider the many walks and runs held to raise money to fight breast cancer, AIDS, lymphoma, and other diseases. Many of the people taking part in these walks have family members who suffer or suffered from the disease.

I’m an example myself. After an aunt contracted and overcame breast cancer, I volunteered at a 3-day fundraising walk that she and her family took part in. All of us are much more likely to take action against a problem, health-related or otherwise, that affects someone close to or similar to us.

It’s great that knowing someone with a disease can motivate us to take action against it. The downside though is it predisposes us to ignore very serious issues that don’t affect those who are close to or similar to us. For example how many walks or runs against schistosomiasis have you heard about in your city? Probably none. You’ve probably never even heard of the disease. Prior to last year, I hadn’t either.

But schistosomiasis is a chronic disease that impacts over 200 million people each year, mainly children, and causes lifelong suffering in many of its victims. However, since the disease is virtually non-existent in the United States (it’s most prevalent in Africa and some parts of Latin America and Asia), few of us have ever heard of it, let alone attended walks to help fight it.

For another example, consider the fact that while there are many malnourished people in the U.S., there are far more people suffering far worse malnutrition in places like Africa and Asia. Nevertheless, the majority of food assistance funded by Americans goes to other Americans. Why? Because they look like us, live near us, and are members of our socio-political group. So our brains tell us to care more about them—even though people outside of America are in far greater need.

Americans Generally Give to Other Americans

In virtually every charitable field Americans give much more money to non-profits who focus on America than to those whose programs are focused on other countries. I imagine the same pattern holds true for Canada, England, Australia, and every other country around the world.

Our innate tendency to act this way is often rationalized by statements that we need to take care of ourselves first before we can take care of others. But when it comes to doing good, the logic just doesn’t hold. If our goal is to reduce suffering and increase well-being, it doesn’t make much difference where on the globe that’s taking place and who it is that’s experiencing it.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy famous declared to a crowd of 450,000 West German citizens, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” (or “I am a Berliner”) to show American solidarity for democratic West Germany. “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin,” added Kennedy. If we want to be great at doing good, we would do well to act in the same spirit. Wherever someone is suffering and in need, they are already one of us.

The Empathy Scale For Other Species

With that sentiment in mind, let’s also now consider how our innate bias to care more about those who are similar to us doesn’t just influence our treatment of individuals who are a different race, sex, or nationality than the one we happen to be. It also influences our treatment of individuals who are a different species than the one we happen to be.

Studies have shown that both on a physiological level and in our attitudes we have widely varying levels of empathy for non-human animals. How much empathy we have depends in part on which species an animal is. The closer a species is to ours in the evolutionary tree, the more we tend to care about members of that species. For example, tests have found that we have more of an empathic response to primates who are suffering than we do to large mammals like pigs and cows who are suffering. We have more empathy for pigs and cows than we do for birds such as chickens. Well below even chickens come fish and other “lesser” creatures, many of which generate little empathic concern.

Our empathy doesn’t have much do with how capable an animal is of feeling pain or experiencing pleasure. But it does have a whole lot to do with how similar an animal’s species is to our own. It can also have a lot to do with how familiar and emotionally close to us that species of animal is. Those who care for cats or dogs in their homes usually grow to have much more empathy for them than for other species. Because they share our homes and our lives, we have come to view cats and dogs as “one of us.”

Our bias toward helping those who are similar to us has several big impacts when it comes to doing good. The first is that it leads us to donate far less to helping animals than we could. Since the goal of charity is to make the world a better place, it’s worth keeping in mind that the amount of suffering endured by non-human animals is staggering.

Meanwhile, the cost of helping animals can be incredibly cheap. As the charity advisory site Animal Charity Evaluators found, some of the most effective animal charities — those doing farm animal protection and vegan advocacy work — spend less than one dollar for each animal they spare from a lifetime of misery. So if we want to succeed at the goal of charity as much as possible, we should probably consider putting more money toward helping animals. Of course doing so requires overcoming the strong pre-programming our brains have to care little about those who seem dissimilar to us.

Stop The Farm Animal Carnage

The second impact of this bias is that, of the money that is donated to animal charities, the vast majority is used to help the species that are most familiar and close to us: cats and dogs. But other types of animals, particularly farmed animals, suffer much more intensely and in far greater numbers than companion animals. While there are several million cats and dogs euthanized each year due to lack of a home in the U.S., there are nine billion pigs, chickens, and other farmed animals each year that spend their entire lives packed in filthy, disease-ridden warehouses.

In case you’re not familiar with how farmed animals are treated, and since this is an issue near and dear to me, allow me one paragraph to explain more. Pigs, cows, chickens, and other farmed animals are often crammed in pens so small they literally cannot turn around, or can only barely do so. Many live their whole lives on painful wire caging or feces-filled concrete floors. Broken bones and gaping wounds are common, and sick animals receive no veterinary attention.

Because they can’t lay eggs and are therefore not profitable, male chicks are tossed alive into giant grinding machines at just a few days old. Piglets who don’t grow fast enough are killed by being slammed headfirst into the concrete floor. Teeth, testicles, and tails are cut off without anesthesia. Common ways of dying at the slaughterhouse include having your throat slit, being scalded to death in a tank of burning hot water, and having a metal rod shot through your brain. All of these practices are both standard and perfectly legal, since animal cruelty laws specifically exclude farmed animals from protection.

The point of all this gut-wrenching description is that though donating to help other types of animals, including farmed ones, would help many more animals and prevent worse cruelty at a dramatically lower price, our innate bias toward helping those who are similar to us or close to us leads most animal donors to focus on dogs and cats. Whether or not you care about animal issues, the situation illustrates just how much of an impact our innate psychological bias to care more about those who are similar to us can have on the charity decisions we make.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with feeling good about doing good. We should feel good about helping others. If that feeling helps propel us to provide more and more support to great causes, then that’s wonderful. The question is where our priorities lie. If we want to be great at doing good, charity should be an area of our lives in which helping others is always the top priority and firing up the reward centers of our brain is always a very distant second.

With that in mind, it’s worth opening up our minds — and wallets — to the horrific misery that billions of farmed animals endure every year. Are they exactly like us? No. But is that really what matters? Or is what matters the fact that they suffer incredible misery, in high numbers, and that we can help stop it?

Nick Cooney is the author of How To Be Great At Doing Good: Why Results Are What Count, And How Smart Charity Can Change The World. Learn more at