Wednesday, May 21, 2008

one point for social cripples

While searching the internets for results-driven philanthropic efforts, I came across a Wired magazine article by Clive Thompson on "why we can count on geeks to rescue the earth." Thompson is interested in why Gates, "practically a social cripple, and at times he has seemed to lack human empathy" is the "first major humanitarian to take action" against malaria, diarrhea, and parasitic infections, all of which "flew under the radar of philanthropists in the West."

The answer? Gates has been the first to target the world's biggest and most preventable killers not in spite of his social backwardness, but because of it -- "He's also a geek, and geeks are incredibly good at thinking concretely about giant numbers."

Thompson argues that this analytical ability is a particular advantage in philanthropy because of a cognitive failing ingrained in most human beings -- "We are very good at processing the plight of tiny groups of people but horrible at conceptualizing the suffering of large ones.
We'll usually race to help a single stranger in dire straits, while ignoring huge numbers of people in precisely the same plight. ... We'll break the bank to save Baby Jessica, but when half of Africa is dying, we're buying iPhones."

This isn't idle speculation. Psychologist Paul Slovic has explored this cognitive failing, including one experiment in which "people were asked to donate money to help a dying child. When a second set of subjects was asked to donate to a group of eight children dying of the same cause, the average donation was 50 percent lower."

Gates' ability to think concretely about big numbers enables him to "truly understand mass disease in Africa. We look at the huge numbers and go numb. Gates looks at them and runs the moral algorithm: Preventable death = bad; preventable death x 1 million people = 1 million times as bad."

Thompson concludes his piece:

"We tend to think that the way to address disease and death is to have more empathy. But maybe that's precisely wrong. Perhaps we should avoid leaders who "feel your pain," because their feelings will crap out at, you know, eight people.

What we need are more Bill Gateses — people with Aspergian focus, with a direct sensual ability to understand what a million means."

That is a terrific advantage if you actually can "understand what a million means" -- I can't -- but I think Thompson is ignoring the power of being aware of that cognitive failing. Your instinct is likely to turn out of a skid, but once you are aware of that instinct and its negative repercussions, you can alter your behavior through purposeful thinking to create a better end.

Overall, I am happy to find an article exploring the negative effect of cognitive bias on philanthropy. I am researching the world of philanthropy in hopes of identifying low-hanging fruit (such as malaria, diarrhea, infectious disease) that take only a little investment for a large payoff.

What is interesting is that early results would suggest the problem isn't necessarily a lack of available philanthropic capital, but a fragmented market of NGOs with unclear objectives, little accountability, and varying visibility.

The answer might not be more money, but structural changes to the way NGOs execute the business of doing good. We'll see.

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