What Inspires Altruism?

Christine Gross-Loh profiles the famed bioethicist Peter Singer, author of The Life You Can Save:

One reason, according to Singer, that people are so hesitant to give is they think their kindness will not matter. This tendency to think that one can’t do very much, or to dismiss all forms of aid as useless, is what researchers call “futility thinking:” What difference can one person even make? Research indicates that money makes people more individualistic and less altruistic. In other words, as societies become wealthier, their citizens become more individualistic and depend less upon one another. Self-interest becomes the norm.

But one antidote against futility thinking is to carefully research charities and organizations—something that Singer’s $100 donation experiment allowed students do. They were presented with four organizations, asked to research and discuss their merits, and vote on where the $100 should go. They applied the lessons they’d learned in the course: that not all donations are equal, and that some donations have a measurably more positive impact than the same amount donated elsewhere…. They learn that their money will always go much further overseas: that a very small amount of money for an American can be life-saving to someone who is desperately poor. In other words, they learn about the tenets of effective altruism: how to evaluate organizations for transparency and benefits, and figure out which forms of aid are the most cost-effective. This is information that tends to inspire more giving.