Pseudoinefficacy: We are willing to help one person, but less willing when there are multitudes we cannot help

December 13, 2016 | By | 2 Replies More

Compelling 2015 research by Paul Slovic and others shows that we are often likely to help a person in need, but we are much less likely to help that person when our attention is simultaneously directed toward other people that we are unable to help. The fact that there are multitudes in need dampens our willingness to help a person we are most assuredly in a position to help.

Here is the summary of the research:

In a great many situations where we are asked to aid persons whose lives are endangered, we are not able to help everyone. What are the emotional and motivational consequences of “not helping all”? In a series of experiments, we demonstrate that negative affect arising from children that could not be helped decreases the warm glow of positive feeling associated with aiding the children who can be helped. This demotivation from the children outside of our reach may be a form of “pseudoinefficacy” that is non-rational. We should not be deterred from helping whomever we can because there are others we are not able to help.

Here is one other excerpt from the research:

The studies described here show that donors pay attention not only to relevant information (children who can be helped), but also incorporate feelings from normatively irrelevant information (e.g., children who cannot be helped) when that information is brought to their attention. Irrelevant negative feelings associated with those not able to be helped appeared to blend with the good feelings for those who can be helped, leading to dampened warm glow. This effect is not a form of inefficacy attributable to “drop-in-the-bucket” (Bartels and Burnett, 2011) cognitions because it occurs even when a substantial proportion of children, though not all, can be helped (e.g., see Table ​Table11; Figure ​Figure22). The fact that one cannot help other children should not influence the decision to help a child who can be helped.

We demonstrated that fast pseudoinefficacy is an affective phenomenon—positive feelings about the child one can help are dampened by negative feelings associated with children who cannot be helped. In Studies 1–4, we found that affect ratings and feelings of warm glow (associated with the child one can help) were lower when children who could not be helped were made salient. In Study 5a,b, we demonstrated that the children not helped induced negative affect that reduced the positive warm glow for the child that could be helped. We also found that the pseudoinefficacy effect is not merely due to the presence of other stimuli. Warm-glow ratings of a single child who could be helped were not reduced when that child was accompanied by non-affective, non-children stimuli. In further support of an affect-based explanation, Study 5b showed that when other, unrelated, pictures that induced negative emotion accompanied the single child, warm-glow ratings were as low as in the pseudoinefficacy conditions where children not being helped were present.

What can we do to counter the effects of pseudoinefficacy? The researchers offer some suggestions:

But countering, or at least minimizing, pseudoinefficacy might not be easy. Kahneman (2011) summarizes a vast amount of research demonstrating that the human mind processes information in two ways: fast and slow (see also Kahneman and Frederick, 2002; Kahneman, 2003). Fast thinking, akin to what Haidt (2001) calls moral intuition when it comes to saving lives, is like perception. Moral feelings arise quickly and seem veridical, without reflection (Haidt, 2001), much like visual perceptions. But just as the human eye, as accurate as it is, can be deceived by certain patterns creating “visual illusions,” certain forms of contextual information, such as children who cannot be helped, may create “moral illusions.” And just as visual illusions may persist even when we know them to be false, the illusion of pseudoinefficacy may be similarly hard to dispel. In light of our findings, we can delete or minimize reference to the larger need the donation request addresses. One charity put the statistic, “3 million in need” above the picture of a starving child, likely demotivating many donors.

Since pseudoinefficacy appears to be an affective phenomena, perhaps a more promising strategy is the one used by Schwarz and Clore (1983) to block the intrusion of irrelevant feelings. Schwarz and Clore (1983) found that merely reminding respondents about the true source of their feelings (the weather) eliminated the affect-congruent influence on judgments (global well-being). Following, Schwarz et al. (2007), perhaps reminding participants that the source of the bad feelings they experience really is the children they cannot help, and not the child they can help, would eliminate pseudoinefficacy.


Category: Community, Friendships/relationships, Good and Evil, Meaning of Life

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    We are more willing to allow someone on the other team be hurt than someone on our our favorite team:

    Fans of different soccer teams are often sworn enemies — but would they go so far as to refuse to help a rival fan in pain?

    Grit Hein at the University of Zurich in Switzerland and her colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan the brains of fans of two rival football teams, identified by coloured wristbands (pictured). The volunteers watched either a fellow fan or a rival receive a painful electric shock to their hand. Fans could then choose to help the other person by enduring half the pain themselves, or to watch either the person endure the pain, or a video about football.

    Activity in two different brain areas predicted fans’ reactions. In those that chose to help, a region associated with empathy called the anterior insula was activated. By contrast, in those that let their rival suffer, the nucleus accumbens showed activation — which was stronger if they had rated that particular foe more negatively before the test.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Adam Smith – The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

    Part III
    Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own. To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct.

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