A Handout or a Helping Hand?

How we judge others guides how we help them says Asst. Prof. Juliana Schroeder

A Handout or a Helping Hand?

Forecasters often overestimate how good they are at predicting geopolitical events—everything from who will become the next pope to who will win the next national election in Taiwan.

Charities often emphasize the desperation and dependence of those they assist—as in heart-tugging videos of starving children in Africa. Yet a focus on helplessness may change how we choose to help those in need, and not necessarily for the better, according to research by Asst. Prof. Juliana Schroeder.

“Charities want to motivate people to give more, but they may also make people think poor people don’t have the ability to take care of themselves,” says Schroeder, a social psychologist who studies judgment and decision making as well as interpersonal and intergroup processes. “If you perceive of someone as having less mental capacity to think or feel, then you are subtly degrading and dehumanizing them.”

In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Schroeder and her co-authors found that people act more paternalistically toward those they believe have lower mental capacity. Their findings reveal fundamental truths about how people think about giving and receiving aid.

Schroeder and her colleagues conducted a series of nine experiments, making a distinction between paternalistic aid, in which givers make a decision about what recipients need, and agentic aid, in which recipients can decide for themselves what they need.

In one experiment, they asked people to rate their perceptions of poor people in Kenya and Uganda, using an eight-point scale that measured perceived self-control, memory, planning, thoughtfulness, and cognition. They then asked subjects to decide whether they’d rather contribute to GiveDirectly, a relatively agentic charity that transfers money to poor people with no strings attached, or to a more traditional, paternalistic charity such as the Red Cross, which provides food, medicine, and other services.

They found that those who rated the mental capacity of the African aid recipients more highly were also more likely to choose GiveDirectly and less likely to believe the recipients would waste the money.

Moreover, the researchers found that people’s ideas about aid recipients’ mental capacity could be easily manipulated. In another experiment, they gave participants one of two descriptions about charity recipients: One highlighted their drive and entrepreneurial spirit, the other, their neediness and resignation. While overall, 58 percent of participants gave to (in this experiment) OxFam versus 42 percent to GiveDirectly, those who were told of the recipients’ pluck were 23 percent more likely to choose GiveDirectly. “Even when the recipient group is exactly the same, the information you give someone about them meaningfully influences their giving behavior,” Schroeder says.

Schroeder points to malleable perceptions as a good reason to question how our perceptions of ourselves and others may affect our behavior. Charities that emphasize the helplessness of aid recipients may unintentionally send a signal that they have low mental capacity. “When you dehumanize an individual or a group it can affect how you help them,” Schroeder says.

Meanwhile, those donating to charities or setting policies for fellow citizens may want to think twice about the assumptions they are bringing to their own altruistic impulses and what is most likely to empower those they seek to help.