Stephen Casper, thestephencasper@gmail.com

Euconoclastic blog series

Jean Piaget, a University of Geneva psychologist, conducted a pretty interesting experiment in 1952. He showed children a diorama of three mountains with a doll sitting next to it. Then he showed these children pictures of the mountains from different perspectives and asked them to identify the one that showed them from the doll’s point of view. Piaget found that most under the age of 4 were unable to imagine how the doll saw things, and when they were asked which picture showed its point of view, they answered with the picture showing their point of view instead.

Piaget’s three mountains experiment

This demonstrates a psychological phenomenon called egocentrism which is simply one’s inability to see the world from the shoes of another. It’s the reason why young children might think that nobody can see them as long as they cover their eyes and why they always seem to have trouble with other people’s rights and lefts. But it doesn’t just affect them. It affects everyone. We all have some difficulty fully appreciating perspectives other than our own, and we can’t help it. After all, everything that we have ever perceived has been through our own senses, and everything we have ever known has been a product of those perceptions. And I think this way of viewing the world limits us. It causes us to mostly think, care, and act concerning things with which we are familiar while we neglect what’s beyond our experience. Stemming from this egocentrism are three problems: ignorance, indifference, and inaction.

Ignorance

Jake Tapper reporting on shootings in El Paso and Dayton (the final death count was 34)

As I write this, in August 2019, the US is buzzing with news about two mass shootings that occurred in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio that killed 34 people. Now don’t get me wrong. That’s a tragedy which I don’t want to diminish, but which I do want to put it into perspective. This essay is around 2000 words, so it might take you around 6 or 7 minutes to read. And during those 6 or 7 minutes, as statistically supported by a 2018 UN report, about 50 children under the age of 5 will likely die preventably — mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia and mostly due to causes related to poverty. That’s over 12,000 today and 4.4 million this year. And it’s strange to even think of that as something that’s real — as something that’s actually happening. But for each of those children, it’s very real, and their life, joy, potential — it’s all coming to an end.

So why are we giving so much attention to events that killed 34 people in the US instead while we usually don’t give much thought to global issues like poverty or child mortality? That’s partly because in an egocentric way, first, we like to give most of our attention to unusual events that excite our emotions and give much less attention to continuous problems — even if they’re objectively larger issues. And second, we tend to be the most informed about things that are near us i.e. in our own nation like Texas and Ohio while we are less concerned about what happens elsewhere in the world. It’s much less of a psychological burden to give our attention to things that are small, unique, and relatively close to us. So those 50 kids seem distant and strange to us and get lost in a statistic that we can’t even fully comprehend while we like to live in our own little bubbles, sometimes knowing the least about some of the issues that require our attention the most.

Indifference

But there’s more to solving the world’s biggest problems than knowing about them. We also struggle to truly care. Because of our limited experience, we’re not familiar enough with problems beyond us for them to spark our empathy. Just take me for example. Right now, I have shoes to wear. I have a home to live in. I have access to food and clean water, I’m emotionally secure. I’m physically and mentally able. I’m not living in fear of violence. I have an education. I’m not oppressed because of my race, gender, orientation, ability, religion, ideology, class, or really any other attribute. And I haven’t experienced the problems that climate change, environmental degradation, conflict, or misaligned technology may bring our global community this century. I don’t know these types of problems or pain intimately, so people like me really struggle to care. Instead of objectively feeling empathy, most of us often only take up activist positions concerning social and political issues that we can relate to, and we often only take the sides that most interest us.

I think a niche but perfect example is how discourse on immigration in the US (in some spheres much more than others) is primarily focused on what will benefit naturalized Americans and much less focused on actual immigrants and asylum seekers — the most vulnerable and desperate people involved in the issue.

And more generally, given someone’s hometown, race, ethnicity, religion, and gender, we can predict their sympathies and politics with an extremely high degree of accuracy. Isn’t that kind of weird?

Something’s broken with how subjectively we see the world.

Ask yourself what kind of things you think and worry about on a day to day basis. That list might include your school, job, family, friends, or other personal things. We tend to be inordinately fond of what we’re familiar with. This is called the Mere exposure effect, and it’s even been described as a “glow of warmth” that we feel in the presence of the familiar. But we don’t tend to feel that care and warmth toward things we can’t relate to, so we care more about our own troubles and what’s around us than systemic marginalization weighing on hundreds of millions across the world.

And this egocentric indifference isn’t necessarily our fault — it’s just our nature. Look at this from an evolutionary perspective. We’re hardwired to only really care about two things: our survival and our reproductive viability. For the vast majority of human history, we only interacted with our immediate surroundings not knowing about and having no reason to care about things beyond us. Today, however, we live in a globalized world that is only becoming more and more interconnected. Unfortunately, in this sense, our moral progress hasn’t kept up with our social, political, technological progress. It even turns out that a team of psychologists from Princeton, Harvard, and Kenyon found using fMRI brain scanning that personal and impersonal moral reasoning use completely different parts of our brain. Unfortunately, the personal ones usually win out. Hence the indifference.

Inaction

It’s not enough just to know and care. We shouldn’t let our egocentric disconnection from things beyond us keep us from acting. Taking the welfare of the world and its people seriously isn’t a passive thing. By now, the probable number of children under age 5 who have died preventably while you’ve been reading this is around 30.

Let that sink in — poverty has probably killed about 30 kids since you started reading this essay.

And each of those kids had a life, a face, and a family.

And there are billions of others across the world who are struggling and in need in some way or another. And of course, someone being far away from us or unacquainted with us doesn’t make them any less valuable and doesn’t make their suffering any less real. But we like to take the path of the least material and psychological resistance, and in doing so, we often fail to help people who are desperately in need.

The Global Footprint Network reports that the average American uses about 4 times their share of global resources. We live in excess, unsatisfied with what’s just enough. And I don’t think it’s even slightly radical to say that if we have the power to help people who are desperately in need at no comparable cost to ourselves, we should. I think it’s strange to view helping others as supererogatory, because all too often, action versus inaction is a matter of life versus death. And we shouldn’t fall for any egocentric notion of privilege or lack of obligation.

Truly, if I dedicated every waking moment of my life to helping others and in doing so saved so many as two lives, wouldn’t that be worth it?

But the margins aren’t that narrow. One person — especially from the USA — can have a much larger effect than most people realize. According to reports by GiveWell, a nonprofit organization that evaluates the effectiveness of different charities and types of aid as little as three thousand dollars’ worth of the right aid in the right place can be enough to reliably save a priceless life.

Taking a Step Back

In 1990, as the Voyager spacecraft was at the edge of our solar system hurtling thousands of kilometers per hour through space, it turned its optics back and captured a pretty remarkable picture of our planet from 6.4 billion kilometers away which just appeared as a pale, blue, pixel of a dot in empty space. And in 1994, Carl Sagan, one of the 20th century’s greatest cosmologists, said in reference to that picture:

The Pale Blue Dot photo

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light … It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Maybe he’s onto something. Maybe that’s the trick: taking an objective perspective — one where we’re not so caught up with our own lives and what’s around us that we fail to know, care, and act concerning things beyond us that matter. We need to tap into the more impersonal regions of our brain and recognize that there are people in need whom we cannot see but have the power to help, and that for some, our help can make all the difference. We need to be more aware of problems beyond us, more apt to extend compassion to those we don’t know, and most importantly, more involved in efficiently good causes — whether it’s with our time or with our money. So let’s all focus a bit more on making our pale blue dot a better place because everyone matters: no matter who they are, where they are, or how they see those three mountains.

Euconoclastic (ajd.) \yu̇-ˈkä-nə,-klast-ic\: iconoclastic in a good and virtuous way. Find me at stephencasper.com.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store