Samu Communications | The science of giving
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The science of giving

and its implications for communications

Scientific advancements can help refocus your communications, they can help ensure your messages achieve the desired affect and this is especially important for social entrepreneurs, co-operatives and charities. But not all is rosy. Scientific discovery has also, inadvertently, hindered communications, resulting in severe ongoing consequences for society.

Scientific advancements can help refocus your communications, they can help ensure your messages achieve the desired affect and this is especially important for social entrepreneurs, co-operatives and charities. But not all is rosy. Scientific discovery has also, inadvertently, hindered communications, resulting in severe ongoing consequences for society.

The popularism of the selfish

Ever since 1976 with the publication of Richard Dawkins populist science book, the Selfish Gene, the debate over Individual desire triumphing over cooperative advantage has raged despite Dawkins conclusion that we should restrain our biological drive and build a more cooperative world.

“It is possible that yet another unique quality of man is a capacity for genuine, disinterested, true altruism,” “We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth. … We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism.”

Some took issue with Dawkins’ conclusion. If our ‘natural’ state was to be selfish, it was proposed, then the logical inference is we should embrace our competitive instincts, as after all we are in ‘the global race’. It did not take long before this social Darwinian viewpoint began to permeate culture, particularly as this idea has often served ideologies of political economy, it suited the economic ‘liberalisation’’ agendas of the Regan and Thatcher administrations in particular, and it still remains:

“We are in a global race today. No one owes us a living. Last week, our ambition to compete in the global race was airily dismissed as a race to the bottom that it means competing with China on sweatshops and India on low wages.

those countries are becoming our customers … and we’ve got to compete with California on innovation; Germany on high-end manufacturing; Asia on finance and technology.”

David Cameron, Leaders address to the Conservative party conference, Manchester 2013

By framing business transactions as the result of being in a ‘global race’ it contradicts what we understand about business. It’s not how business, or communications, work in reality as It oversimplifies it into a binary relationship, winners and losers. Business can be either dominant (monopoly) reciprocal (free exchange) or mutual (co-operative). Groups that employ a particular minimal threshold level of altruism can potentially outcompete groups that are less cooperative. This is seen in all types of business, even monopolies require levels of cooperation to achieve and maintain their dominance.

So what scientific basis can we utilise to challenge such intended distortions?

Scientific progression

Other branches of biological science, other than genetics, have been adding much needed nuance to the debate, The significant technological advances in computing since 1976 have led to many intriguing discoveries in neuroscience.

Mirror Neurons

In the 1990’s Dr. Rizzolatti was part of a neurophysiologists team in Parma, Italy studying the neurons that control hand mouth coordination in a Macaque monkey. To their surprise they found that the neurons in the monkey would respond when they observed a human pick up a piece of fruit and hold it to their mouth. As soon as Rizzolatti discovered, what was to become to be named a mirror neuron, in monkeys he sought to establish if this existed in humans. They do.

The team sought to publish the results of their findings in Nature, but it was initially rejected for ‘its lack of general interest’. It did not stop Rizzolatti though. Soon there were further papers, studies, experiments conducted that sought to explain and speculate upon the cause and implications of mirror neurons. Were these the cause of empathy? Could these connections in the brain explain the physical mechanisms for altruistic behaviour? Does this discovery mark an end to selfish? That was certainly a popular reaction.

Debate about mirror neurons (and if they exist as separately classifiable, rather than an occasional function of a standard neuron) continues. Especially around their importance in language acquisition and learning. This debate has carried lots of misconceptions in the public understanding of what the implications are, often derived through poor journalistic reporting.

What does seem to be evolving from the current state of debate, is that mirror neurons do play a role in empathy and language acquisition, but are not the causal explanation. Complex systems rarely have simple singular solutions. Which is why a recent study, as reported in July’s Neuron piqued my interest.

Computational modelling

A team in California, Hutcherson, Bushong and Rangel, present a model of how altruism can work predicting when a person will act generously in a given scenario. It incorporates the selfish too. It also has profound implications for communications.

The team utilised a modified version of the Dictator Game, a favourite of behavioural economists. They conducted brain scans of 51 male participants during their participation in the game. The brain scans indicated that decision making is split into two areas, one that considers the benefits for oneself, and another area was concerned with the benefits that could accrue to others.

Given the rules of the game, perhaps unsurprisingly, In their model most people tended to be relatively selfish, but they also found that at times even the most selfish participants made generous decisions. It turns out these participants had made mistakes in their calculations, they had under-weighted their decisions, due in large part to the time constraints in the game.

This ties in with what we can observe from high-pressure sales techniques, employed by business and charities alike. You can manipulate people to act uncharacteristically, so even the most selfish will give, out of a sense of ‘mistaken generosity’. But this approach relies upon forcing a mistake out of the intended recipient, and does not bode well as a long term strategy.

“Our results indicate that people are happier when mistaken generosity doesn’t happen.”

Hutcherson has commented.

“But if we can increase people’s focus on the thoughts and experiences of others, we can decrease those mistakes while increasing charitable giving and making altruism feel a lot easier.”

Implications for communications

What we are beginning to see from the ongoing research are flaws in some of the concepts that lay behind singular theories, be they derived from science, business, economics, politics or communications. That singular theories, such as the selfish gene are insufficient to explain human behaviour. But this is still all adding to our understanding and is beginning to clarify useful approaches.

Hutcherson’s findings point to directions in fund raising messaging and strategies. Messages that rely upon triggering feelings of guilt in intended recipients have limitations, if most males act selfishly (as in their experiment). Whilst pressurising such people may work in the short-term there is potential for resentment and little long-term gain. We can utilise the stories that trigger empathy, beyond those of inducing fear or guilt, and still anticipate altruistic responses. It all starts with empathy, for the donor and the recipients.