Two days before Christmas I spent an hour watching a beggar. Would you like to hazard a guess at how many people gave to her? She was an old woman. She looked ancient but was probably only 50 or 60 years old. She was shriveled and doubled over to the extent that she took up little more than the space of an average TV set on one of La Paz’s busiest pavements. And her spindly wrist stuck out of this buddle desperately imploring passers-by to spare a coin or two. But no, hearts didn’t jump. Even in the peak of their Christmas generosity people were not going to jolted into giving by this pitiful sight and, in the end, out of the hundreds that went past, just six people stopped to drop a coin into her hand.
To many this won’t come as a surprise. We have all heard and read that giving to beggars is not good for them. As was immortalized in the depictions of Indian street children in the movie Slumdog Millionaire, many believe that giving to kids who should be in school only encourages them to stay uneducated or feed their glue sniffing addiction, or that there is a possibility that they are working for a pimp like figure. Meanwhile, the adults are seen as taking an easy option when they should be helping themselves by working, “don’t they know that nothing comes for free” and “isn’t it partly their fault that they are there in the first place?”
To test whether these feelings, and subsequent lack of donations, are indeed widespread, last week I went on a mission to ask people from all parts of the world awkward questions about why they are not more generous to beggars in their own backyard. Most denied that their generosity is not proportional to the gravity of the situation and are reluctant to discuss the matter further. Others started to list their various charitable contributions that aren’t giving money on the street. While others still used one or many of the well-known rationalizations outlined above and a few admitted that beggars don’t emotionally move them.
These widespread opinions and behavior fit into what U.S President Barrack Obama describes as our “empathy deficit”, but a more psychologically scientific name would be dissociation. Rather cleverly, humans in both the developing and developed world have managed to distance themselves almost completely from the extreme suffering that they come into daily contact with, either directly or through media. The result is that, for many, a stranded dog somehow pulls more on the heart strings than a person who can’t afford to feed themselves.
This dissociation does not just apply to beggars, but can rear its head in some form or another in almost all potentially heart-wrenching situations. Currently, it is labor exploitation that is on the tip of every moralist’s tongue and at the very back of every consumer’s mind.
Over the last decade journalists and activist projects, such as “NikeWatch”, have forced consumers and especially female shop-a-holics to come face to face with the exploitative production processes behind the goods that they buy. This has mainly been done by raising awareness about the terrible conditions and poor wages that the often female workers who make consumer goods face. Occasionally they are now made to really ponder how Walmart can put a pack of three tank tops that have been made in Asia on their shelves for just US$6 and still make a profit. In other words, consumer dissociation has been challenged by asking people things, such as if they are willing to buy cheap clothes if they know that a child’s hand embroidered it or what price they are willing to pay to know that a product is environmentally and socially sound?
Like the excuses that prevent even minimal generosity to beggars, the one that enables shop-a-holics to continue buying $2 t-shirts focuses on a small part of the system and simplifies it. When well-educated adults are asked how they can morally justify publically boasting that their sequined jacket cost them just $15 dollars they use the well practiced argument of “at least it provides employment”. This is true if you stick to the most basic definition of the word ‘employment’. In the same way that people read a story about a rich kid turned drug addict, who has ended up as a beggar, and use this single anecdote to feed their dissociation and make personally advantageous assumptions about how all beggars are really just wasters by choice, people presume that employment is good, full stop. Strangely, we somehow forget to pause and think about the great difference between fair employment and exploitative employment. We forget to consider that if buying a top for $2 creates exploitative employment then buying the same shirt but for twice the amount (a mere $4) could create non-exploitative employment and that this would change lives in developing countries.
This does not apply to everyone. There is a small minority of people, especially middle and upper class Europeans, who try their best only to buy fair trade clothes and food. And the Oxfam’s NikeWatch campaign did manage convince consumers to boycott Nike, and in turn, Nike changed their production practices.
However, research to date shows that increased information concerning exploitative labor practices does little to influence consumer choices. Carrigan et al (2001) concluded from their semi-famous research project “The myth of the ethical consumer – do ethics matter in purchase behavior?” that despite a boost in pro-ethics journalism, ethical consumers still comprise a small minority, and that most consumers continue to consider brand image as more important than ethical behavior.
Not surprisingly, there are some issues that stand out to the consumer over others. Auger and colleagues (2003) found that when buying a sports shoe the issue of child labor was considered more important than guarantees of a minimum wage salary, provision of safe working conditions, and the existence of acceptable living standards. However, rather shockingly, overriding all the above in importance was the fit of the shoe.
Even the relatively successful anti-Nike labor exploitation information that once dominated the media only “provoke[d] some minimal anger and frustration”, which in the end was ”not enough to change consumers’ behaviors” in the long run.
All these studies show a dissociation between our actions and the plight of others. A dissociation which transforms our normally sympathetic natures into unsympathetic ones. They demonstrate that consumers are not really fussed about exploitation in the same way that pedestrians are not really fussed about the existence of extreme poverty.
Such psychological dissociation is a great limitation to human development. If only our hard hearts could be softened and these emotional psychological barriers could be lifted, redistribution would become the norm and extreme poverty would probably disappear by the end of the decade. However, human psychology is strong. Awareness raising is ineffective but it most definitely is not effective enough to make ethical thinking the custom, which in the eyes of many leaves it up to policy makers to make the moral choice the easy choice.
What are your experiences on day-to-day dissociation and do you have any ideas about how to overcome it?
Mieke Dale-Harris is working as an intern at the Institute of Advanced Development Studies (INESAD), La Paz, Bolivia. She is a psychology graduate from Goldsmiths University of London.
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