The Importance of Self-Awareness for People Who Want to Change the World

I gave this talk at Sunday Assembly NYC last weekend. A bunch of people have asked to see my notes and slides, so here they are! That’s why this isn’t really in blog-post format. Here are the slides.

[At the beginning, I asked how many people in the audience volunteer their time to a cause they care about, and/or donate money to a nonprofit organization. Not surprisingly, it was most people in the room.]

Why do people engage in altruistic acts like volunteering time or donating money? Here’s a partial list of reasons:

  • Community building: for instance, we might donate or volunteer when there’s an emergency in our community, or when someone in our social network is doing a crowdfunding campaign.
  • Social pressure: for instance, we might donate when a canvasser asks us to and we feel bad about saying no.
  • Religious or moral obligation: maybe not applicable to most people in this room, but some people do altruistic acts because they believe their religion obligates them to.
  • Social rewards: when we volunteer for reasons like resume building or making friends, those are social rewards
  • And, finally: because it feels good! This is the one I’ll mostly be talking about here.

Some people claim that altruism stems entirely from one’s values and ethics, and that emotions have nothing to do with it. They may also claim that doing good things because it makes you feel good makes those things less good, which makes it unpopular to admit that you like how it makes you feel when you act altruistically.

This view is more about the sacrifice made by the individual doing the altruistic act, and less about the actual positive consequences that that act has. It comes from the belief that anything that feels good is inherently suspicious, possibly morally bad, and a barrier to being a good person–a belief I’d associate more with religion (specifically, Christianity) than anything else.

But there’s nothing inherently bad about doing things because they feel good. In fact, we can harness this feature of human nature and use it to do more good! But in order to do that, we have to learn to be aware of our motivations, whether we like them or not.

Before I get into that, I also want to note a practical aspect to this: if we allow activism or charity work to make us feel bad rather than good, we’ll burn out, lose hope, and stop trying. It might be prudent to encourage each other and ourselves to feel good about altruistic acts. Of course, self-care is really important anyway, even when it means taking a break from activism or quitting it altogether. But that’s a topic for another talk.

Let’s look at some research on altruistic behavior. Keep in mind that these are just a few examples of a vast number of different studies and methods; studying altruism scientifically has become very popular.

Empathy, which is the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective and imagine how they might feel, is a predictor of altruistic behavior. However, as we always say in the social sciences, correlation is not causation. The fact that it’s a predictor doesn’t necessarily mean it causes it; maybe engaging in altruistic behavior also enhances our ability to empathize, or something else is impacting both variables. But it does seem that the two are related.

Relatedly, brief compassion training in a lab can increase altruistic behavior. Compassion training is basically just practicing feeling compassionate towards various targets, including people you know and people you don’t. Even after a short session of this, people were more likely to do altruistic things.

People who perform extraordinary acts of altruism, such as donating a kidney to a stranger that you’ll never see again, may have more activity in their amygdala, which is a brain region that (among other things) responds to fearful facial expressions. It’s difficult to say for sure what this means, but it could mean that altruism is driven in part by automatic neural responses to someone else’s fear.

People who volunteer for “selfish” reasons, such as improving their own self-esteem, tend to keep volunteering for the same organization for a longer period of time than those who say they volunteer more for purely ethical reasons. Keep in mind, though, that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the “selfish” volunteers volunteer more overall. It’s possible that the ethics-driven volunteers have less of a motivation to stay with the same organization–after all, many people and causes need help.

Unsurprisingly, spending money on others makes people feel happier, and the happier they feel as a result, the more likely they are to do it again, creating a feedback loop.

It works similarly with donations to charities, even when they involve a simple money transfer without much of a human element. Donating to charity activates brain regions linked to reward processing (usually associated more with getting money than giving it away!), and in turn predicts future giving.

What does all that mean?

Basically, seeing people suffer may make us more likely to engage in altruistic acts to try to help them. Seeing people suffer is painful for most people, and helping them is a way to ease those negative emotions. Doing nice things for people can make us happy, which can make us even more likely to do nice things for people again. The implication of brain structures such as the amygdala suggests that it’s not all about higher-order values and beliefs, but also basic, automatic brain processes that we can’t necessarily control. But of course, our values and beliefs can in turn influence our brain processes!

If we do altruism for “selfish” reasons, like having a sense of belonging or feeling good about ourselves, we may choose things that feel best rather than the ones that do the most good.

One example is voluntourism–when people travel for the purpose of volunteering to build houses, for instance. I have no doubt that many of these programs do a lot of good, but they have also been criticized, including by the communities they’re trying to help. For example, sometimes houses built by college students who have never done a day of manual labor in their lives aren’t necessarily very well-built. And often, these programs don’t actually empower the target communities to thrive on their own, leaving them dependent on charity. But these programs feel very rewarding to the volunteers: they’re intense, they build strong social bonds, they involve traveling to a cool place, and they make people work hard physically and get stronger. No wonder so many people love them.

Another example is in-kind donations. Again, sometimes very helpful, but often not. Organizations that do disaster relief often ask for money instead of goods, because then they can use it for whatever’s most urgently needed. They may desperately need medicine, but keep getting t-shirts instead. Giving them money rather than clothes allows them to buy what they need. Donated goods may also not be practical for the area in question–for instance, TOMS shoes, which is where you buy a pair of shoes and another gets sent to an impoverished child overseas, may not actually be very practical in communities where people walk miles each day over unpaved roads. While they’re very cute and comfortable, they may not last long. But, of course, organizing a clothing drive or buying a pair of shoes probably feels a lot more rewarding than sending a boring check.

Here’s one more study to help illustrate how this plays out. In this experiment, researchers showed one group of participants a story about a starving girl and asked them to donate to help her. Meanwhile, another group of participants saw the exact same story, but this time with accompanying statistics about the broader implications of starvation and how many human lives it takes. You might think that the latter group would give more money–after all, they have even more of a reason to donate.

Instead, they donated much less.

Why? From the NPR article:

The volunteers in his study wanted to help the little girl because it would make them feel good and give them a warm glow. But when you mix in the statistics, volunteers might think that there are so many millions starving, “nothing I can do will make a big difference.”

The participants in the second group, the ones who saw those dismal statistics, felt bad. They felt so bad that they no longer wanted to give money.

And likewise, we may choose forms of giving that feel best, which means “sexy” causes, issue affecting people emotionally or geographically close to us, and causes our friends are doing. We may not even realize that’s how we’re choosing. A little self-awareness can go a long way.

It’s difficult to hear criticism of one’s activism or charity work. It’s especially difficult when our motivations include social acceptance and self-esteem. This is especially important in social justice activism, where you may be working with or on behalf of people who are directly impacted by things you’re not.

I often get angry responses when I try to constructively criticize men who are involved in women’s rights activism. They’ll say things like, “How dare you tell me I’m being sexist, I’m totally an ally!” Their need to feel accepted makes it impossible for them to hear even kind, constructive criticism.

There are other, smaller-scale ways in which we help people all the time–listening to a friend who’s going through a hard time, giving advice, or, if you’re a counselor or therapist like me, doing actual counseling.

Sometimes, people–even therapists–do these things because they want to “fix” people. Seeing people in pain is hard and we want to make their pain go away–not just for their sake, but maybe for our own, too.

But if that’s our motivation and we’re not aware of it, we may give up in frustration when people don’t get “fixed” quickly enough. We may even get angry at them because it feels like they’re refusing to get fixed out of spite. As someone who’s struggled with depression for a long time, I’ve lost friends and partners this way.

As I mentioned, I’m also a therapist. Most therapists, especially at the beginning of their careers, have a supervisor. A supervisor isn’t just a boss or a manager–it’s a mentor we meet with regularly to process the feelings we’re having as we do our work, and to make sure that our motivations and automatic emotional responses don’t get in the way of that work.

Most of you aren’t therapists, but you can still learn from this practice. Supervision is therapy’s version of checking yourself before you wreck yourself. If you’re supporting someone through a difficult time, it might be helpful to talk through your own feelings with someone else.

[Here we did a small group exercise, though I also made sure to give people the option of just thinking about it by themselves if they don’t like discussing things with strangers. The exercise was to think/talk about these three prompts:

  • Think about a time when you volunteered, donated money, or did some other altruistic act, and found it very rewarding. What made it feel that way?
  • Think about another time when you did an altruistic act and didn’t find it very rewarding at all. Why not?
  • Think about a time when you were trying to do something altruistic, but your own emotions or personal issues got in the way. What was that like?

Afterwards, I asked for audience members to share their experiences with the larger group and we talked about how all of those experiences relate to the themes I’ve been talking about.]

In conclusion: Selfish motivations can inspire a lot of good actions. There’s nothing wrong with that! However, being aware of those motivations rather than denying their existence can help you avoid their potential pitfalls.

If we truly care about helping others, we should try to do so in the most effective and ethical way possible, and that means being willing to ask the tough questions about what we do and why.

~~~

Here’s the blog post this was partially inspired by.

[guest post] Harry Potter and the Fuzzies of Altruism

Here’s a guest post from Robby Bensinger about the psychology of altruism with a little bit of Harry Potter thrown in. 

Effective Altruists are do-gooders with a special interest in researching the very best ways to do good, such as high-impact poverty reduction and existential risk reduction. A surprising number of them are also Harry Potter fans, probably owing to the success of the EA-promoting fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

The author, Eliezer Yudkowsky, calls that nice inner glow you feel when you help people “warm fuzzies“. But I’ve noticed that not everyone who’s interested in charity and social justice gets identical “fuzzies”. People with the same humanitarian goals can differ not only in their philosophy and tactics, but even in their basic psychological motivations. So I decided to construct a taxonomy of fuzzies modeled after the four Houses of Hogwarts.

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slytherfuzzies — how it feels to save the world by improving yourself, mastering your own will, and achieving your personal goals.

Slytherfuzzies are that self-esteem boost, that sense of being effective and just plain Awesome, when you successfully help people. Fuzzies are especially slytherin when people’s happiness is seen as an indispensable means to achieving slytherfuzzies (or just Victory), rather than your altruistic impulses being used as a mere means for making the world a better place. Picture Gandhi cackling in a darkened, smoke-filled room and muttering, ‘All goes according to plan…’

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ravenfuzzies — how it feels to save the world as an intellectually stimulating puzzle.

One helps people not so much out of felt empathy as out of boredom, or curiosity, or a conviction that happy, healthy human-style intelligences help make the world a more beautiful, interesting, and complicated place. Any altruist can recognize the value of doing research and figuring out what actually works, but when you’re driven by ravenfuzzies your altruism will exhibit a ravenclaw’s detachment and openness to experience.

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gryffinfuzzies — how it feels to save the world from within a hero narrative, (e)utopian vision, or any sort of Moral Quest.

A gryffinfuzzy can be as proud as a slytherfuzzy, but the grounds for pride are externalized — things are finally The Right Way, not necessarily my right way. Compared to hufflefuzzies, gryffinfuzzies are more bold, epic, blazing, and abstract.

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hufflefuzzies — how it feels to save the world in the form of lots and lots of sick baby bunnies.

Hufflefuzzies are warm. Personal. Social. Fuzzy. They’re probably the most common and essential source of altruism. They are units of reverse schadenfreude, of empathic joy, of emotional connection, solidarity, or belonging.

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I’m not trying to get a perfect mapping from canonical Houses to moral sentiments. Experiencing hufflefuzzies doesn’t make you a hard worker. Experiencing slytherfuzzies doesn’t make you a conservative.

Instead, I’m using the Houses as an excuse to investigate the different reasons people do good. It’s a common error to assume that everyone thinks and perceives the same way you do. If adopting a more complicated view of happy glowy squishy humanitarian fuzzies helps us better understand each other, and better reach out to people with different styles of moral reasoning, then adopt it we should!

In my own case, I seem to be mostly motivated by gryffinfuzzies. I find that especially interesting because philosophically I’m much more likely to explain and defend my ethical views in terms of the value of empathy (like a hufflepuff bodhisattva), or the value of diversity (like a ravenclaw Feyerabendian), or just in terms of my personal preferences (like a slytherin existentialist). Apparently my core moral intuitions are quite distinct from my intellectualizations of morality.

What about you? What drives you to do good? What combinations of fuzzies do you experience, and do they vary for different kinds of charitable work? Are you working on cultivating some of the varieties that you’re currently missing out on? Do my groupings make sense to you, and are there any fuzzies I’ve left out?

Robby Bensinger is critical thinking activist and philosopher. The former president of the Indiana University Philosophical Society, he does research in the intersection of science and religion, consciousness studies, value theory, and metametaphysics. (Yes, metametaphysics.) He has been heavily involved with the IU Secular Alliance for the past five years, and works much of his mischief at the blog Nothing Is Mere.

Why Being Pro-Gay is More Than Just a Smart Business Move

Last Tuesday, Equally Wed magazine held a National Starbucks Appreciation Day and encouraged people to go to Starbucks to show support for their pro-gay rights stance. The event was a response to Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day, in which droves of people went to Chick-Fil-A to celebrate their right to deny others their rights. The magazine later renamed it “National Marriage Equality Day” and invited other gay-friendly companies to participate.

Starbucks established itself as a company that supports marriage equality earlier this year when its Executive Vice President, Karen Holmes, released a statement on behalf of the company in support of gay rights legislation in Washington state, where it’s headquartered. But it’s far from alone in taking a public stand for gay rights. For example, the Oreo cookie’s official Facebook page made news by posting this photo back in June. American Apparel–hardly a bastion of ethics otherwise–carries a “Legalize Gay” shirt. Companies frequently march in gay pride parades. And so on.

Gay rights are obviously an emotional issue for many people (myself included), and I’ve seen some very different responses to this trend of companies coming out in support of gay rights. Some people get very excited and enthusiastic about supporting these companies in return, and take this to mean that the leadership of these companies is strongly invested in gay rights. Others are extremely cynical and claim that it’s all just a business ploy and means nothing.

I think that, as it often does, the reality lies somewhere between these two extremes. Businesses never do anything–especially not anything that requires them to spend money–solely out of the goodness of their hearts (hell, businesses aren’t people, so they don’t even have hearts). But that doesn’t mean that businesspeople don’t genuinely care about certain issues and want to use their position as leaders to advance those issues.

First of all, many companies literally put their money where their mouth is when it comes to being pro-gay. They don’t merely post a picture on Facebook or sell a pro-gay t-shirt; they combine their ideological stance with tangible action. Starbucks, for instance, provides same-sex partner benefits to its employees, meaning that an employee’s partner can use their health insurance. (Pretty cool that Starbucks provides insurance even for part-time employees, too.)

Google, meanwhile, not only provides same-sex partner benefits, but even compensates its gay and lesbian employees for a tax on partner benefits that heterosexual couples do not have to pay. It also launched a campaign called “Legalize Love,” which will work to combat workplace discrimination in countries with anti-gay laws on the books.

Aside from partnering with one of the most well-known queer people in the country, JCPenney has recently run ads in its catalogs that feature same-sex parents. What’s more, they did this soon after One Million Moms ran a highly-publicized boycott against them for hiring Ellen Degeneres as a spokeswoman–kind of like an extra fuck-you.

People who know more about marketing than I do seem to agree that being pro-gay is good for business. Furthermore, a study shows that even internal policies–as opposed to public actions like these–helps businesses, at least according to the businesses themselves.

Credit: lightfran/Flickr

But what’s more important, at least to me, is that these smart business moves are also helpful to LGBT people. Even the symbolic gestures that some companies make–such as Oreo’s Facebook picture–can make a difference. If even one LGBT person comes across them on their newsfeed and feels like the world is a bit less shitty, I would consider that a good deed done.

A lot of the cynical pushback against this comes down to the mistaken assumption that there is such a thing as “true” altruism. Hypothetically, true altruism is when the person doing the altruistic act derives absolutely no benefit from it–no financial gain, no social capital, no personal sense of worth and value. The latter is, of course, an inescapable aspect of doing good things for people–doing good feels good and everyone knows that. And yet you still see people claiming that altruism is ultimately “selfish” because it feels good.

So, either there is no such thing as altruism, or our concept of “selfishness” needs to be redefined. In their support of gay rights, these companies are being “selfish” in the sense that they’re serving a few of their own interests, but they’re also being altruistic in that they’re taking up an issue they don’t have to take up–nobody asked them to do it, and a lot of good may come of it.

Finally, trends in business can be a barometer of public opinion. The reason all these companies are suddenly “jumping on the bandwagon” (as a cynic would say) and openly supporting gay rights is because they can. In prior decades, companies that lobbied for gay marriage rights or published pro-gay opinions would probably have been run out of business–or at least seen their profits severely decrease.

But today, being pro-gay is good for business. I think that’s something to celebrate.