Two Fridays ago, a couple of friends and I went “Trick-or-Eating” on Halloween with the Yale Hunger and Homeless Action Project. The event had volunteers trick-or-treating at East Rock, but instead of going door to door asking for candy, we collected canned goods to donate to the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen. YHHAP had distributed flyers to all the homes in the neighborhood that week explaining what we would be doing and raising awareness for the cause.
All the residents we encountered — from graduate students to grandparents to young families — were extremely receptive to the event, insisting on filling our hands with candy as they rummaged through their pantries for non-perishables. Numerous homes even left full boxes of canned goods on their porches for us to collect. After just one block, our arms were full of boxes and bags of donated food. We were so pleasantly surprised by the kind spirit of the neighborhood; it was refreshing to encounter so many people who were eager to help. It is incredible how generous people will be if you just make it easy for them to give.
In contrast to the residents who donated so much food, only about 15 volunteers showed up to trick-or-eat, a fraction of the people who were encouraged to help out with the event. Initially I was frustrated by this lack of effort, chalking it up to an overall deficiency in community dedication. But after experiencing the generosity of the residents of East Rock, I realized that often community service is less about whether or not a person wants to help and more about how convenient it is for them to do so.
This reminded me about optimal defaults, a concept that is often discussed in psychology classes. The idea is that rather than having to opt into doing something, people will be more likely to do it if doing that thing is the default, and in order to not do it they have to opt out. This idea operates, at least partially, on the assumption that people are inherently lazy. According to the theory, people will not want to make the effort to either opt in or out of a certain situation, so instead we should optimize their defaults so that their inaction results in positive behavior.
A prominent example of this is organ donation. While there is a growing shortage of organ donors in the United States, many other countries have combatted this issue by implementing a presumed consent policy. In the U.S., people must volunteer consent to donate their organs while in many other countries, such as Spain, Belgium and Austria, people have to list their objection to donation on a national registry. If they do nothing, they are assumed to be willing donors. The organ donation rates in these countries all increased after implementing presumed consent, suggesting that just by changing the default to being an organ donor, more people will donate their organs than they would have if they need to opt into it.
One study by Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello probed the nature of infants. In the study, the infants would help adults attain their goals, assisting them with tasks such as fetching out-of-reach objects irrespective of whether they would receive any reward or reciprocal favors. This finding suggests that humans are inherently altruistic. In my opinion, it is not a question of whether or not people want to help feed the hungry or donate needed organs to a transplant patient. But for the masses to help and for aid to be collected on a large-scale volume, it’s necessary that we make it as easy as possible for people to help.
So many of our peers at this institution are passionate about so many different causes. We’re so driven to make a change in this particular field that we forget other students may not share our energy for this particular project. Inertia is powerful and it’s easy for people to be lazy when the cause at hand isn’t their personal pet project. Rather than criticize that tendency, we must work around it, making it as easy as possible for people to help others. The next time, you’re organizing for whatever cause you care about, think outside the box and consider optimizing defaults. It may seem a pessimistic outlook, but someone needs to carry the cans.
Ally Daniels is a junior in Berkeley College. Her columns run on alternate Mondays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.