Can You Make A Difference?
You’re watching your favorite TV show when a commercial for world hunger comes on. Images of badly malnourished children appear on the screen . . . one after another after another. You are moved by these pictures and feel sadness, sympathy, and maybe compassion. You see and hear the appeal to give to an organization to provide food to these and many thousands of hungry people. Now you feel frustrated along with sadness. You want to help, but how can you make a difference with such an overwhelming need?
Driving downtown, you pass the main homeless shelter in your community. Dozens of homeless people of every color and circumstance are everywhere, waiting for the shelter to open for the night. You feel sad that there are so many people who do not have a place to live, who clearly are the poorest of the poor, dirty, aimless, and goodness knows what else. You feel a tug at your heart to do something but mentally throw up your hands because you are overwhelmed with the need. How can you possibly make any difference in the face of such a need?
What’s going on?
Anyone who has ever come face to face with a huge human need has also experienced doubts about whether they can make a difference. There is a name for this feeling—numeracy bias. That’s right. It’s a thing. Numeracy bias is a form of cognitive bias in which a person comes to a wrong conclusion because the information provided appears to be precise, and, therefore accurate. As it applies in the world of serving others, numeracy bias is the assumption that it is impossible for one person to make a difference given the scope of need. So, there’s no point in trying.
Most of us who have a desire to serve people in need have come up against numeracy bias multiple times . . . whether or not we knew what to call it. It’s so common, in fact, that it seems to me to be worthy of a blog. It is one of the primary reasons a lot of people withdraw from getting involved in serving others.
Refusing to serve others because the need is so big is a sort of half-truth. There is some truth in it—when faced with hundreds of homeless people, it is true that one person cannot solve that problem for all those people. But the rest of the bias is not true—then what one person can do doesn’t make any difference. If one homeless person is helped, especially if that help moves him from homelessness to independence and health, it makes a difference, a world of difference. Just ask him.
We live in an instant gratification culture. If we need to know something, we can Google it and get more than enough information instantly. If we’re hungry, we can pop a frozen dinner into the microwave and get a meal (almost) instantly. (Or, if we are a bit more patient, we can call Grubhub!)
Serving others does not lend itself to instant gratification. To be sure, there are plenty of times when we serve others that we quickly see positive results—the smile of a woman whose pantry is bare when she receives food from a local pantry; the thank you of an elderly man whose tire you changed for him as he drives off. But often, we are not eyewitnesses to the results at all—donating food to a pantry but not being involved in personally giving food to hungry people; volunteering at a non-profit but not interacting with the people they serve.
To get past the hindrance to serving instant gratification can be, envision how your serving has made the life of another person better. It may be possible to talk with someone who has met or is meeting the same need you are trying to meet. It may also be possible to research how the help you gave made a difference in other places.
Focus on one person
In his book, The War for Kindness, author Jamil Zaki cites “. . . studies show people express more empathy for one victim of a tragedy than they do for eight, ten or hundreds.” Hundreds of victims cause the numeracy bias to kick in. But focusing our attention on one person is not only more likely to produce genuine empathy but will also move us to serve that person.
Remember the starfish story? A man was walking on a beach when he came upon hundreds of starfish scattered on the beach. They would die if they did not get back into the ocean, so the man began to pick them up and hurl them into the ocean. Another man came along and asked what he was doing. The first man said, “I am throwing these starfish into the ocean, so they won’t die.” The second man said, “You can get all these starfish back in the ocean. There are too many of them.” The first stooped down, picked up a starfish, and threw it into the ocean, then said, “Helped that one.” An excellent strategy for overcoming the numeracy bias.
Remember past occasions of serving
When we serve others, we experience a “helper’s high.” We feel happy. I’ve written about this in other blogs. Studies show such experiences not only produce good feelings at the time, but our memory of them produces ongoing positive effects.
When you feel overwhelmed with needs and wonder if anything you can do will make a difference, remember past occasions of serving others. The hit of serotonin you get from that memory may be enough to get you past the wall of numeracy bias.
What do you think?
Have you pulled back from serving people in need because the need is so big that you can’t imagine making a difference? How did you deal with that situation? I’d like to hear.