Day 488: Self Interest to Drive Organ Donations

More than 100,000 extra people are expected to sign up to become organ donors next year after a change to the way the public are asked to join the register.

Researchers found that people are far more likely to sign up if they are encouraged to think selfishly.

In a trial, more than one million people renewing their tax disc or registering for a driving licence online were presented with one of eight messages encouraging them to join the organ donor register. 
It was found that people were most likely to sign up if warned that they might need a transplant themselves one day.

The most successful question was: ‘If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one? If so, please help others.’ - DailyMail

It is sad to know that we are more likely to help other people (at even no cost to ourselves) if there is a possible benefit for ourselves. This has been noted in psychology as well, though maybe not quite so explicitly. In the book Social Psychology (Twelfth Edition) by Nyla R Branscombe, Robert A Baron & Donn Byrne there is an entire chapter dedicated to "Prosocial Behavior". The chapter explores motives for prosocial behavior and aside from the few people who really do experience empathy towards those in need, most of the motives are self-interested - even if they do not appear to be so at face value.

The sub categories in the chapter explore a number of hypotheses:
  • Empathy-Altruism (It feels good to help others)
  • Negative-State Relief (Sometimes, helping reduces unpleasant feelings)
  • Empathic Joy (helping as an accomplishment - ie. it is rewarding)
  • Competitive Altruism (helping others boosts the helper's own status and reputation)
  • Kin Selection Theory (helping ourselves by helping those who share our genes)
Two researchers (Latane and Darley, 1970) developed a proposal of what chain of events takes place within a person when they are faced with a situation which requires them to decide whether they will help or not. The series of decisions they proposed are as follows:
  1. Notice or fail to notice that something unusual is happening
  2. Correctly interpreting the situation as an emergency
  3. Deciding that it is your responsibility to help
  4. Deciding if you have the knowledge or skills to help
  5. Making the final decision to provide help
What they also discovered was that when there were many people witnessing a situation that required action, the more people there are the more everyone assumes that someone else will help - and so no one takes action. This has been referred to as diffusion of responsibility and accordingly the larger the number of witnesses, the less likely it is that anyone will actually help. Another discovery made by Latane and Darley (1968) was what they call pluralistic ignorance, which is the tendency of people to wait for someone else to provide a cue that there actually is an emergency out of a fear of embarrassing themselves if the situation turns out not to be an emergency.

Other factors that determine the likelihood that we will help someone include the following:
  • We are more likely to help people we like, or people who are similar to us than people we do not like or who are dissimilar to ourselves. 
  • We are more likely to help those whom we perceive to not be responsible for the situation they are in than someone who we believe is responsible for their situation. 
  • We are more likely to help if we see other people helping (including media representation).
The chapter does continue further with different considerations and theories, but I will not go into it any further within this post.

Before I conclude I must reiterate that there are people, many people, who help others simply because they would not like to be placed in that same situation. Now I must ask why it is that we have this tendency of only thinking of ourselves, even when faced with another person in great suffering? Sure, it is a part of our society as a whole, the focus of our personality development being on the self and "reaching for your dreams no matter what" - but could this be argued to be a part of our nature? My stance on the concept of human nature is that there are many things that we habitually do, including thought patterns and personalities, but anything can be changed through a consistent and disciplined approach - so our tendency of selfishness is not set in stone, we can change ourselves and start living with true empathy, which is doing unto another as we would want done unto ourselves were we in their position.