By Jenny Eaton Dyer, PhD
Having just concluded teaching my annual course at Vanderbilt, Global Health Policy and Politics, I am inspired to write a blog series based on a session I teach regarding the “psychology of global health.” In that session, I have students read a chapter from Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save. In this chapter, he outlines six reasons for “Why We Don’t Give More” in terms of philanthropy.
In this blog series, I will write on both why you may OR may not care about global health, along these lines of Singer’s arguments, and I will offer reasons for both. I think this helps explicate our thinking and behavior when it comes to helping people in our global village. It may explain why you are drawn to a specific nonprofit to donate or why you could care less about advocacy, for example.
The first reason it is difficult for us, as humans, to care about global health issues is that it is overwhelming! We are MUCH more apt to give or participate if we focus on ONE single person. Studies show that if we can focus on ONE name, ONE face, and ONE story – we will donate or act far more than if we had the opportunity do the same amount of good for 1000 people. Or even just two. This is called focusing on the “identifiable victim.” We have the capacity to hone in on the one, but not the many. Not even more than one.
Because a group of people can easily succumb to anonymity in our minds, we lose the emotional stamina and persistence it takes to altruistically donate or take action to save lives. “The many” overwhelms our emotional response system.
We need an image of just ONE person to sustain our interest long enough to feel a human connection, perhaps a transference, with their personal story. This is why child sponsorships are so successful, for instance.
Perhaps put more clearly, we have two systems of thinking. Our first system is emotional, intuitive, and reactive. This system allows us to give generously during an earthquake as we mourn the victims or come to aid quickly during a flood. This system responds immediately with an outpouring of altruism.
Our second system is analytical, logical, and deliberative. As we consider more deeply our actions, we tend to act less quickly and allow for strategy and pragmatism to prevail.
Most non-profit organizations will attempt to elicit your emotional—system one--response to a crisis. They want you to move quickly without much analysis.
When it comes to advocating for maternal and child health and the healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies, we instead are asking you to deliberate. To think along the lines of action at a global scale. We would like to ask you to engage system two for a thoughtful, long term stragey of prevention.
220 million women around the world don’t have access to family planning but want to avoid pregnancy, and 287,000 women lost their lives in childbirth last year. Moreover, 6.9 million children will die from preventable, treatable disease this year.
We challenge you to think strategically about these problems for a moment and to partner with us as we draw on years of research, on-the-ground experience, and cultural expertise.
Over the next several weeks we’ll discuss why you may or may not care about global health. We will review Singer’s work highlighting how futility, parochialism, the diffusion of responsibility, fairness, and money affect the good we could do for global health.
We will look at the flip side of that as well. We will discuss why global health is of utmost importance in terms of national security, foreign policy, economics/investments, public health, and humanitarian reasons.
In this age of increasing globalization—we are the generation that can feasibly achieve global health goals for millions. Far beyond our expectations.
We hope you will join us.