Stories for Good

Published 19 December 2019

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Does thinking about ethics make you more ethical?

Do you have an intuitive reaction to that question? I did – I would have said yes: that’s basically why many people do ethics. If you are unsure, what would you say about professors of ethics – people who spend their professional lives thinking about how to be good? If it is true that thinking about ethics makes you a better person, then these people ought to be the best-behaved among us. Isn’t that just the mark of ethics, a discipline that seeks to answer how to behave better, that it gets us to behave better? You might be surprised to learn that professors of ethics are no more ethical than the rest of us. At all.

Eric Schwitzgebel, Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, asked a simple question: "Are ethics books more, or less, likely to be missing from academic libraries than other philosophy books?”. The assumption is that theft and negligence in this context are both bad (unethical), generally speaking, and that professors of ethics are more likely to take out and so fail to return books about ethics. Schwitzgebel found that ethics books are more likely to be missing than non-ethics books taken as a percentage of holdings. The effect was not limited to just a few libraries, or sub-genres, or titles. And tenured ethics professors seem to be ethically unexceptional across the board: in a later study Schwitzgebel found that they are not significantly more likely than their colleagues to donate blood, reply to student emails, donate to charity, give blood, forego eating meat, or regularly call their mothers. The lesson to draw is not that academics and professionals are no more likely to act on their own pronouncements and knowledge than the rest of us. After all, doctors are unsurprisingly less likely to smoke than the rest of us. I would bet that dentists probably maintain better oral hygiene, and that economists are more savvy investors than their colleagues in linguistics or history down the corridor. Naturally, if we have privileged access to information that tells us how to act in our own interest - to act prudentially - then we might as well use it. But when it comes to acting in other’s interests - acting ethically - it looks like access to information about how or why to do so doesn’t change our inclination to actually do it. That’s our first clue that studying ethical arguments apparently does not motivate ethical behaviour? It looks like there are two big factors at play: social effects (What are my peers doing? Is this expected of me?) and compelling and identifiably stories. I want to draw attention to this second factor.

When you give to charity, what compels you to do it? Sometimes there is some level of awkwardness and social pressure involved if we are giving in the company of people we know, or if we are engaged in conversation with a representative on the street. Sometimes we are really moved by a particular image or story. But most of us would say, I think, that we are moved by the conviction that it is the right thing to do quite aside from being manipulated by those factors, and that it is the right thing to do because we think this is an effective way of making a difference with the money we can spare. To that end, we might expect (or hope) that our charitable giving might be responsive to considerations of the size of the effect our donations are likely to have. Again, it looks like most of us are mistaken about this, too.

If you are interested in experimental psychology, you will have heard of Kahnemann and Tversky, and their program of drawing up the various 'heuristics and biases’ that underlie our decision-making and account for various kinds of collective irrationality. One such relevant heuristic is scope neglect. In a well-known study, participants were asked to donate real money to endangered waterfowl. All the participants were introduced to the problem: that waterfowl in some lake are at risk of drowning in uncovered oil ponds this year unless they are covered with protective nets. Some were then told that 2,000 birds were at risk annually. Others were told it was 20,000; and the rest 200,000. They were then asked how much money they would be willing to give to help install the protective nets. The participants were willing to pay $80, $78, and $88 respectively. Other studies have found a very similar relationship (or lack thereof) between the magnitude of a problem and the amount people are willing to give up to help out.

In a similar study, psychologists Deborah Small, George Loewenstein, and Paul Slovic confronted two groups of people with a plea for charitable donation. The first group were shown a photo of a seven-year-old girl and told:

Any money that you donate will go to Rokia, a seven-year-old girl who lives in Mali in Africa. Rokia is desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger, even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed and educate her, and provide her with basic medical care.

A second group were shown:

Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than three million children. In Zambia, severe rainfall deficits have resulted in a 42% drop in maize production from 2000. As a result, an estimated three million Zambians face hunger. Four million Angolans — one-third of the population — have been forced to flee their homes. More than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance.

They were asked how much they might donate to the causes described. The first group volunteered far more money than the second. This is a vivid example of the so-called identifiable victim effect. We are more likely to feel sympathy for, and donate to, a single identified person than a statistic. So, identifiability is a crucial ingredient in getting people to donate; and actually you probably knew that before reading this.

We are all familiar with the identifiable victim effect – we confront it whenever we get caught up in massive outpourings of sympathy for characters with names and personalities, which often flood news media. Most of the time, you never get to meet these people; but it often feels like we all have. Abstract statistical facts rarely sway us more than a character we can sympathise with, and a story we can feel invested in. Consider a striking illustration from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan:

In the late 1970s, a toddler fell into a well in Italy. The rescue team could not pull him out of the hole and the child stayed at the bottom of the well, helplessly crying. Understandably, the whole of Italy was concerned with his fate; the entire country hung on the frequent news updates. The child’s cries produced acute pains of guilt in the pow­erless rescuers and reporters. His picture was prominently displayed on magazines and newspapers, and you could hardly walk in the center of Milan without being reminded of his plight. Meanwhile, the civil war was raging in Lebanon, with an occasional hiatus in the conflict. While in the midst of their mess, the Lebanese were also absorbed in the fate of that child. The Italian child. Five miles away, people were dying from the war, citizens were threatened with car bombs, but the fate of the Italian child ranked high among the interests of the population in the Christian quarter of Beirut. “Look how cute that poor thing is,” I was told. And the entire town expressed relief upon his even­tual rescue.

Peter Singer argues that the identifiable victim effect leads to ‘the rule of rescue’: “we will spend far more to rescue an identifiable victim than we will to save a ‘statistical life.’” Jessica McClure was 18 months old in 1987 when she fell into a dry well in Midland, Texas. Singer continues:

As rescuers worked for two and a half days to reach her, CNN broadcast images of the rescue to millions of viewers around the world. Donors sent in so much money that Jessica ended up with what was reported to be a million-dollar trust fund. Elsewhere in the world, unnoticed by the media and not helped by the money donated to Jessica, about 67,500 children died from avoidable poverty-related causes during those two and a half days, according to UNICEF. Yet it was obvious to everyone involved that Jessica must be rescued, no matter what the cost.

President Reagan even remarked, “everybody in America became godmothers and godfathers of Jessica while this was going on,”. Maybe there is a place for audacious, expensive rescues – because they send a comforting message to the rest of us that our lives are too valuable to get written-off on the wrong end of a cost-benefit calculation. But I’m not trying to take sides here (except implicitly) so much as drive this point home: people typically care about characters and stories more than they do about statistics– especially when they choose where to give money.

More generally, it also turns out that the tangibility of a plea for donations - the imagery used in the charity’s pitch - makes the most difference. In another experiment, the control group was presented with a pitch that read:

Oxfam provides a broad range of aid to people across the globe. Any donation that you make will go directly towards one of Oxfam’s greatest needs.

Another group were presented with a more tangible description of a charity with a more specific directive:

Nothing But Nets provides bed nets that protect against mosquito-borne malaria to families in Africa. One net can protect at least one child from infection. Any donation that you make will go directly towards a net.

Participants in the second (more detailed) condition donated nearly twice as much as participants in the general condition. In a similar experiment, one group were asked;

There has been a traffic accident on a remote section of the highway, and a person has been seriously injured. This person requires a helicopter rescue and immediate medical treatment to save his life.

While another group were posed a subtly changed variant:

There has been a traffic accident on a remote section of the highway, and a young secretary has been seriously injured. The secretary was traveling by herself, on her way to spend the weekend with her parents. She requires a helicopter rescue and immediate medical treatment to save her life.

As Schelling (1968) puts it, “the more we know, the more we care”. The identifiable victim effect and the importance of tangible descriptions can and do divert donations far off course from where they might do the most good, and towards causes that happen to have been presented in the most compelling way. You might think this is a problem, because charitable giving is a kind of zero-sum game for most: if I give to this already over-funded or ineffective campaign with an especially moving pitch, I am less likely to give to this other under-funded and highly effective charity which failed to get me to feel enthusiastic about helping it. So what can be done?

A very natural suggestion, then, would be to encourage potential donors to deliberate on the effects of their giving decisions, and on their own vulnerability to the identifiable victim effect. In other words, maybe the best plan is to undermine the bias towards donating to causes with compelling narratives and identifiable victims. That way, we might expect those donations to get redirected towards more effective but less exciting causes. As it happens, this approach might actually backfire. On one hand, people do give less to identifiable victims when they are told to deliberate in this way. Good news - it is possible to undermine these biases. On the other hand, they do not correspondingly give more to ‘statistical victims’ like the victims of drought or food shortages. It is apparently easier to extinguish sympathy for identifiable victims than to elicit sympathy for those people hiding behind statistics. We need, therefore, a positive way to motivate giving in line with the boring-but-important causes that lose out to compelling stories with identifiable characters. Just emphasising skepticism about stories is not enough. Here’s a suggestion: rather than aiming to undermine the effect of the stories that move us to donate money, why not just tell the right stories? If the stories we told aligned with the causes that were most effective (according to the boring things like statistics) then there would be no more uncomfortable tension between those causes which do the most good, and those which compel the most people to give.

Many effective causes have adopted this approach. For instance, Development Media International, an organisation on GiveWell’s list of ‘standout charities’, aims to influence health-related behaviour in low-income countries through mass media broadcasts. The low cost of advertising means that some randomised controlled trials yielded a cost per life saved of under $800. That’s a barnstorming statistic, but DMI are careful to share personal stories about how their radio campaigns actually work. Here, for instance, is a father’s story of how a simple broadcast saved his daughter’s life:

My name is Tibandiba Lankoande and my daughter is called Mariéta. Three years ago my wife let Mariéta sleep outside while she went to work in the fields. When she came back Mariéta had a high fever. We thought she had fallen under a curse. People here believe that can happen if a bird flies over a child while they sleep outside. I consulted traditional healers and spent most of my money on traditional remedies and medicine bought at the market. But nothing worked and on the sixth day she fell into a coma. That night a neighbour came to visit and he was listening to his portable radio. That’s when I heard a message on the radio explaining how to recognize the symptoms of malaria in children and saying that parents should take them immediately to the health centre. As soon as I heard it I took her straight to the health centre. They told me she had severe malaria. They treated her and after a week she recovered. After we got back from the health centre the first thing I did was buy a radio. Since then the radio and I are inseparable. My daughter is now four. Everyone calls her “the child of the radio.” If I hadn’t heard the radio message she wouldn’t be alive today.

To give an example: for a long time, physicist and mathematician Douglas Hofstadter ate meat. As he explains in his book I am a Strange Loop, "I didn’t think I thought about it very much, since none of my friends did, and certainly no one talked about it. Meat-eating was just a background fact in the life of everyone I knew. Moreover, I admit with shame that in my mind, back in those days, the word “vegetarian” conjured up an image of weird, sternly moralistic nutcases.” The mind of this cognitive scientist was not changed by an argument or facts or statistics, but by a story. "I read a short story called “Pig” by the Norwegian–English writer Roald Dahl, and this story had a profound effect on my life — and through me, on the lives of other creatures as well.” In Pig, a man is caught in the machinery of a factory farm, and dropped like the pigs before him into a vat of boiling water. Having read it, Hofstadter became vegetarian and has remained so, on and off, ever since. It is remarkable and overlooked by some that a fairly silly short story by a children’s author can achieve what concerted efforts of argumentation often cannot.

Stories make abstract ideas concrete and hence persausive. How many times have you seen a political argument in which one party lays out their case in terms of statistics and carefully considered reasons, to be trounced by their opponent who wins over the audience with a story. Storytelling can obviously be dangerous when the storyteller is advancing a bad agenda, which is all the more reason to make full use of the motivating power of narratives to advance those agendas which are better.

Stories with identifiable characters are also undervalued tools for understanding in disciplines which tend to shun them. In philosophy, thought experiments are often the clearest way of conveying unintuitive or complicated ideas. Stories like the drowning child, or Parfit’s disorienting teletransporter, can lead people to unorthodox views who would otherwise be resistant to standard arguments. And stories, finally, can help explain ideas that might otherwise strike us as dry, confusing, or untenable. In their recent book Radical Markets, Eric Posner and Glen Weyl lay out some novel and at times quite technical policy proposals- changes to taxation, representation, and immigration. At the beginning of each chapter is a little vignette, or character profile, of a person affected by the proposal they plan to discuss. I really liked this: it gave me a way to constantly refer back to this character whenever things started to feel to theoretical or irrelevant.

I think all of this might be relevant to the Effective Altruism community. I’m wary of depicting the movement with too broad a brush, but a message I hear repeated often enough is that charities would be better-off if they rolled back the emotive pleas and focused on appeals to reason, evidence, and statistics. I agree that it would be better if people actually did give more according to evidence rather than to mere sentimentality. But it doesn’t follow that EA should exclusively focus on presenting facts and evidence in the absence of good stories in order to get this to happen. If one of the aims of the movement is to engage as many people as possible to donating to effective causes, the most effective means to do so involves less arguing and more storytelling. To give another example, a great deal of resources and consideration have recently been directed towards thinking about the long-term future. Champions of 'long-termism’ evangelise about the profound and so-far neglected importance of protecting and improving the prospects of people living in the potentially far-distant future. It is difficult to disagree with the long-termist arguments, but it is very difficult to empathise with a merely possibly future person. Particularly when actual living people so demand our attention with palpable and immediate needs. Here is a clear place for fiction to play a motivational role. Seriously thought-out fiction informed by our best guesses about the far future, to be sure, but fiction nonetheless. If we can speculate about the lives of future individuals in detail and in such a way that we come to empathise and identify with them, it will be easier to galvanise enthusiasm about long-term causes. It sounds frivolous, but I think storytelling is a seriously neglected part of the EA movement.

If you found this interesting, feel free to share it wherever or drop me an email.

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