Altruism finds its heart on the Internet


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Every morning, without fail, my wife turns her attention to the greater good while she sips her first cup of tea. She steers her browser to a website (greatergood.com) where, with a click of the mouse, she can donate a few cents to ameliorate world hunger, fund autism treatment and research, and support the work of animal shelters. This simple act doesn’t cost her any money, as advertisers provide the funding in exchange for flashing their messages at her. My wife’s sole investment is one of time and mindfulness. For these few moments she joins herself to the community of those with compassion for the needs of others. For these few moments she is part of the new altruism made possible by the internet.

People who focus on the negative aspects of technology and who’ve come to think of the Internet and social media as the realm of “selfies” and general self indulgence, of cybercrime and cyber-bullying, may not think that Internet altruism computes. “Slacktivists” is what they call folks who use the ease of action on the net, belittling their achievements and doubting their commitment. But facts don’t bear them out.

For one thing, digital giving, though more prevalent among the young, is quickly becoming the chief means of making donations for everyone: Even 42 percent of boomers, the age group responsible for the most philanthropic dollars, made their 2013 donations via websites, according to a study on the charitable habits of Americans by Blackbaud, a technology firm servicing the non-profit community.

Internet giving on sharp rise

Overall, online giving increased 14 percent in 2013, while traditional modes increased only 1.5 percent. Bear in mind that as the Internet becomes ever more central to our lives, giving on the Internet becomes ever more natural. For example, statistics from Network for Good, the Internet’s leading nonprofit giving platform, which handles web donations for about 40,000 organizations, shows that online giving occurs largely between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays. That is, people do most of their giving during work hours. There’s even a drop in giving during the noon hour.

For another, there’s no evidence the “click-to-give” sites drive down other donations or actions; my wife hasn’t eased up on any of her causes. Such everyday digital altruism actually causes a domino effect, setting the stage for other altruists to engage in physical world activities like delivering and distributing the goods or services raised online. And nearly half of givers aged 18-48 engage with the causes that interest them with more than money. In fact, fewer than a third of them believe they can make the most difference by donating money alone.

As defined in the dictionary, altruism is “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” In short, altruism is the opposite of selfishness. Some philosophers propose that there’s no such thing as pure altruism, that there is always some personal benefit to the do-gooder, be it something as intangible as a warm glow and ego enhancement or something as valuable as the likelihood of reciprocity.

The theory that rings truest to me, and is supported by many evolutionary psychologists, is that the individual has a biological imperative to be concerned with the well-being of his own group. Certainly in the early days of man, one’s safety and survival depended on his immediate relatives, then his clan or tribe or village. When the altruistic impulse extends into the wider world of strangers it can be seen as a holdover of the early evolutionary trait. Or, perhaps altruism in today’s globalized world is a continuation of evolution as we recognize, more and more of us, something akin to a human family. The Internet and social media have definitely contributed to making a broader and broader community feel like family.

Online charitable sites are able to paint a portrait of the members of that family. Rather than just funneling money into the maw of big philanthropy and funding the big salaries of its administrators, we can now, to a large degree, see the people we’re helping and how we’re helping them.

According to the Blackbaud report, this is especially important for givers under the age of 50. They want to know how their donations are making a difference: Nearly 60 percent of Millennials, and half of Generation X donors, said that seeing results from their contributions influenced their decision to give. About a quarter of the under-50 givers follow their beneficiaries’ progress on social media and websites.

Can Compassion Be Learned?

Compassion, caring for people who are suffering, is necessary to motivate altruistic behavior. A new study by researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that adults can actually be trained to be more compassionate, whether the training can result in greater altruistic behavior and whether neural systems show changes related to experiencing compassion.

For the study, investigators trained young adults in compassion meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique meant to increase caring feelings for people who are suffering. Participants envisioned a time when someone was suffering and practiced wishing that his or her suffering was relieved. They repeated phrases — such as, “May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease” — to help them focus.

 Participants first meditated on easing the suffering of a loved one, someone whom they easily felt compassion for. Then, they practiced compassion for themselves and, subsequently, for a stranger. Finally, they practiced compassion for someone they actively had a conflict with, such as a difficult coworker or roommate. “It’s kind of like weight training,” said lead researcher Helen Weng. “We found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.”

The compassion trained group was compared to a control group that learned cognitive reappraisal, a technique to reframe their thoughts in a more positive fashion. Both groups listened to guided audio instructions over the Internet for 30 minutes per day for two weeks. A test (called the “Redistribution Game”) was devised to see if those trained in compassion would be more altruistic, helping people they had never met. “We found that people trained in compassion were more likely to spend their own money altruistically to help someone who was treated unfairly than those who were trained in cognitive reappraisal,” Weng says.

The study also measured changes in brain responses using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) before and after training. While in the MRI scanner, participants viewed images depicting human suffering, such as a crying child or a burn victim, and used their newly learned skills to generate feelings of compassion towards the people. The control group was exposed to the same images, and asked to recast them in a more positive light as in reappraisal.

Measuring the change in brain activity between the beginning and the end of the training, the researchers found that the people who were the most altruistic after compassion training were the ones who showed the most brain changes. Activity was increased in the inferior parietal cortex, a region involved in empathy and understanding others.

The study suggests that compassion, like a physical or academic skill, can be enhanced with training and practice. Perhaps someday compassion and kindness training in schools will help children learn to be attuned to their own emotions as well as those of others, a knowledge that could decrease bullying. Perhaps more people will learn they are their brothers’ keeper.

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