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Commentary: The dangers of empathic giving

a/Opinion by

A few weeks ago in February, James Robertson, a 56-year-old factory worker from Detroit, told police he no longer felt safe in his home. Ever since his car broke down in 2005, Robertson has walked 34 kilometres to work, five days a week. But after a touching news story about him went viral, a local college student started an online crowdfunding campaign that raised over $350,000 on his behalf.

The online response to his struggle followed a dangerous trend in society. In considering where to donate, people are swayed more by empathy than by rational thinking.

Despite the good intentions behind the donations, the money that Robertson received caused him problems. Robertson was now more wealthy than most of his neighbourhood. He constantly feared robbery, as neighbours— some friendly, some not—swarmed his front door asking for money. Robertson had lived in Detroit for 15 years, but when a nearby man was stabbed to death for his relatively measly $20,000 lottery winnings, he decided it was time to leave.

A simple question, such as “Who needs the money most?” could have elicited a more pragmatic response. While Robertson pocketed a small fortune and a brand new car, many others in his community were also suffering.

Herein lies the problem with crowdfunding campaigns. They give misery a human face, and then manipulate people’s empathy for money. This creates wildly popular tales, such as Robertson’s, which are picked up by social media and prime-time TV to be gobbled by the public. We can see Robertson and empathize with his struggle, and online campaigns allow us to feel like we’re helping.

In considering where to donate, people are swayed more by empathy than by rational thinking.

But empathy-driven decision-making is blind. What about people who don’t get time on the tube? Surely they deserve help as well. By letting emotion control our judgment, we end up giving too much to too few people.

For example, after the Sandy Hook shootings, Newtown, Connecticut witnessed a huge stream of toys that were offered to the students of Sandy Hook Elementary. But there is such a thing as too many teddy bears; the school eventually ran out of room, and had to ask people to direct their gifts down another path.

The goodwill of such benefactors is heartwarming, but the results of their actions, although not entirely their fault, can be ineffective and wasteful. In light of this, donors have a choice: They can be guided by empathy, and donate to help a few people with very sad stories, or they can spread out their donations in a way that will help larger groups in society whose struggles may not have received the same degree of publicity.

Of course, the former will continue to thrive. When people fund one man, they can watch his evolution on national news, proud to play a small part in a much larger story. But imagine what $350,000 could have done if spread among the people at Robertson’s door, or if used to improve public transportation for everyone in the neighbourhood.

The goal of charity is to alleviate suffering and maximize wellbeing. If those on the giving side take this seriously, they should help organizations aiming for broad change, even if thinly spread. In such, empathy—and emotion overall—can still be used to galvanize. But it ought not be used as a tunnel vision so heavily focused on a single person, ignoring the widespread struggles faced by others. Sadly, a shift from this practice is unlikely to occur, as donations guided by empathy and self-congratulation remain just a click and a credit card number away.

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