The Perils of De-Contextualisation, Essentialism and Reductionism

Studies exploring audiences’ (un)responsiveness in terms of immediacy of, or identification with, the victim are a good illustration of the problems inherent in decontextualised accounts of prosocial behaviour. For example, Kogut and Ritov (2005a) found that, in experimental situations, the group given details about a specific victim gave significantly more than the group that had received only general information. These results were replicated in a similar study by the same researchers (2005b). It has thus been claimed that ‘the identifiable victim effect’ leads to the ‘rule of rescue’ (Singer, 2009: p. 47). Similarly, the recognition of similarity or common fate which gives rise to a sense of ‘we-ness’—a sense of belonging to the same group—increases the likelihood of helping the in-group (Penner et al., 2005). This process has been explained in terms of a favouritism bias towards members of one’s own group as opposed to members of other groups (Hewstone, Rubin, & Willis, 2002; Mullen, Brown, & Smith, 1992). On similar lines, Levine and Thompson (2004) found that social category relations, rather than geographical proximity or emotional reactions, were the most important factors in increasing responsiveness to humanitarian appeals. One of the strongest examples of this is the behaviour of the Swiss population in response to similar appeals from different parts of the world. The first appeal followed a landslide in the Swiss canton of Wallis in 2000; the second an earthquake in the Iranian city of Bam in 2003. Large amounts of money were donated by individuals in Switzerland to aid the victims of both natural disasters. But the difference in amount is remarkable: the Iranian victims received 9 million Swiss Francs, whilst the Swiss received 74 million Swiss Francs (Meier, 2006). This difference is made even more significant by the disparity in wealth of the victim groups. Even taking into consideration factors such as the increased potential for reciprocity from the receivers of the higher donations due to geographical proximity, it is apparent that social categorisation played a crucial role.

This important conclusion is not disputed here; rather, the issue is what kind of explanation mainstream social psychology can provide for this phenomenon. There seems to be a widespread and essentialist assumption that this is how humans operate; a matter of fact, self-evident, but often unspoken, idea that it is all down to human nature. Singer (2009), in reviewing current prosocial research, explains the phenomenon in terms of ‘parochialism’ and claims that ‘it is easy to understand why we are like this’; that is, that ‘our concern for the welfare of others tends to be limited to our kin, and to those with whom we are in cooperative relationships, and perhaps to members of our own small tribal group’ (p. 51). This is because, for several millions of years, parents who did not care for their children were unlikely to pass on their genes.

To corroborate his claim, Singer (2009) cites three disasters: the tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2004 (220,000 were killed and donations reached $1.54 billion from US citizens), Hurricane Katarina in 2005 (1600 died and Americans gave $6.5 billion) and the earthquake in Pakistan in October 2005 (73,000 were killed, but it elicited only $150 million in US donations). However, one of the factors neglected by this explanation is that the earthquake was the only one of these tragic events that was not caught on video and so did not result in dramatic and oft-repeated television coverage. This, according to Media and Communications experts, is of crucial importance. For example, Chouliaraki (2006) argues that humanitarian tragedies in distant parts of the world that do not involve westerners are presented from the start as less important, the victims as a faceless mass, rather than people we can identify with. This suggests that how members of the public arrive at perceiving some victims as more ‘worthy’ of support than others might have very little to do with hardwired evolutionary processes, and instead being negotiated through specific geopolitical and ideological practices. Yet, even in the studies which explore the power of social categorisation, the link with socio-historical and geopolitical factors is not made.

The impact of mainstream social psychology’s preference for insular, reductionist and deterministic answers is further exemplified by a series of studies by Slovic and his colleagues (Slovic & Slovic, 2004; Slovic, 2007a, 2007b; Small, Loewenstein, & Slovic, 2007). Slovic is concerned with the ongoing moral apathy that characterises audiences’ responses to news of genocide or mass atrocities. Why—Slovic asks—do these massive crimes against humanity not spark us into action? His answer is to blame what he terms ‘psychophysical numbing’, which determines that the emotional reaction to a group is much less than to a single individual. He argues that this psychophysical numbing seems to follow the same sort of psychophysical function that characterises our diminished sensitivity to a wide range of perceptual and cognitive entities as their underlying magnitude increases. Constant increases in the magnitude of a stimulus typically evoke smaller and smaller changes in response: ‘Applying this principle to the valuing of human life suggests that a form of psychophysical numbing may result from our inability to appreciate losses of life as they become larger’ (p. 2).

Slovic concludes that the problem is in our congenital difficulties with numbers which, all too often, represent dry statistics: ‘human beings with the tears dried off that lack feeling and fail to motivate action (Slovic & Slovic, 2004). When it comes to compassion, he claims, using an identified individual victim is the best way of eliciting it. This has indeed been confirmed in practice. Charities such as Save the Children have long recognised that it is better to present a donor with a single named child to support than to ask for contributions to the bigger cause. However, when attempting to explain why this might be the case, Slovic rapidly shies away from the socio-cultural dimensions and turns instead to behavioural research according to which a single individual, unlike a group, is viewed as a psychologically coherent unit. This leads to more extensive processing of information and stronger impressions about individuals than about groups.

Slovic’s rendering of prosocial reactions is an example of mainstream social psychological mechanism and reductionism. Members of the public are portrayed as inert and unsophisticated, and the engagement with humanitarian issues purely a matter of a ‘stimulus—emotional arousal—action’ dynamic. Resorting to evolution is particularly problematic when there is so much history and ideology underpinning these phenomena. Indeed, the problem with the alleged ‘scientific neutrality’ is that it blinds us to crucial differences. Slovic’s outrage at the West’s indifference and apathy to the plight of distant others is passionate and commendable. Many of his conclusions are valid and interesting, but his insights are crippled by the epistemology and methodology he uses. For example, he seamlessly moves from applying results using a victim of famine in Malawi to the genocide in Darfur or to natural disasters in South Asia or the victims of 9/11 and so on. From a scientific point of view, these are simply ‘neutral’ stimuli to study what ostensibly might appear to be the same phenomenon of prosocial behaviour, but to anybody outside the insularity of mainstream social psychology, it would be obvious that these humanitarian disasters are historically, socially and politically profoundly different from one another. Equally, their meaning will impact in a specific way on members of the public according to their beliefs and relative positioning in regard to each specific phenomenon. It is this meaningful intersection that could throw important light on audiences’ reactions to humanitarian crises. Yet, when it comes to humanitarian emergencies, overall what current mainstream psychological research offers are quantitative experimental data, disconnected from their political, historical and social meaning and from members of the public’s accounts of their reactions which might illuminate such meanings. It seems that the insularity of mainstream psychology and its allegiance to natural rather than social science means that the more credible, obvious and interesting explanations for prosocial behaviour, or its absence, are neglected. This could explain why, although ‘for decades results in laboratory experiments have offered insight about motivations for prosocial behaviour, it is still unclear how these results can be applied outside the laboratory’ (Meier, 2006:4)

Additionally, in the majority of the experiments relating to prosocial behaviour, the participants often appear one-dimensional and flat. Even when we are provided with demographic information about them, it is difficult to gain a sense of their subjectivity, of who they are. There is rarely attribution of agency, moral or otherwise, to the participants in the experiment. Their responses appear pre-determined, the outcome predictable as, however responsive and caring participants might be to begin with, an understanding of the scope and complexity of their possible moral response is foreclosed by the studies’ epistemological and methodological constraints. Korobov and Bamberg (2004), for example, criticise questionnaire studies and argue that expressing a forced choice or Likert-scale attitude is entirely different from expressing an attitude in daily social interaction. First, questionnaire questions tend to reify the issue under scrutiny by stabilising the item in the form of relatively stereotypical and arguably facile descriptions. Second, the forced- choice format systematically strips off the interactive subtleties and rhetorical finessing that are part of the daily expression of attitudes, evaluations and assessments (Korobov & Bamberg, 2004:473).

Who has not experienced those moments of conflict and uncertainty when faced with an outstretched hand or an appeal for money? And yet, mainstream social psychological research has paid little attention to those battles between social responsibility and self-interest—at least not in their complex interplay and constant changeability—and the everyday internal moral squabbles. As has been repeatedly argued (e.g. Parker, 1997; Potter & Wetherell, 1987; Edwards & Potter, 1992; Potter, 1996; Wetherell & Potter, 1992; Wetherell & Edley's, 1999; Billig et al., 1988), and experienced daily, embracing contradiction and inconsistency is probably what we do best as humans as part of the fabric of everyday, moral and immoral, reasoning (Billig et al., 1988,1. Yet, inconsistencies are seen in mainstream psychological experiments as a sign that something has gone wrong with the design, in other words, is a problem.

We live in a global society, where moral boundaries shift continuously in line with the forever-changing identity of who is friend or foe. We experience the daily tensions in our social responsibility between ever stronger pulls towards individualism and global compassion. With such unstable global, political and socially determined norms, the glaring inconsistencies in findings could be embraced and recognised as significant and worthy of investigation. However, mainstream research on prosocial behaviour consistently moves away from complexity and contradiction, favouring neutrality, predictability and replicability instead.

Such neutrality, much cherished by mainstream social psychology, has itself been object of interrogation by critical psychologists who have instead highlighted the covert and unrecognised ideological operations informing research directions and the shaping of important theories, for example, in studying bystander intervention. Frances Cherry (1994), for example, argued that by moving in as closely as possible to the behavioural phenomena and casting the event in terms of independent variables (e.g. group size that affects dependent variables such as intervening behaviour), these researchers chose to ‘veer away’ from a socio-cultural analysis of the event. She concluded that the use of a ‘scientific’ approach, at the core of psychology’s claim for neutrality and objectivity, is in fact in antithesis to a socio-cultural analysis (Cherry 1994:40). She highlights the deleterious effects of this epistemological standpoint on the way in which the Kitty Genovese case, which marked the beginning of prosocial research in social psychology, was understood and theorised. The refusal to engage and acknowledge the role of societal and ideological forces meant that gender and violence, in her view key factors in the brutal attack and the behaviour of the bystanders, were empirically neglected and were not translated into empirical paradigm. This move shaped bystander research for decades.

On similar lines, Manning et al. (2007) convincingly argue that the way the Kitty Genovese story has become institutionalised in textbooks has ‘served to curtail the imaginative space of helping research in social psychology’ (p:555) and has contributed to ‘defining the phenomenon of helping in emergences in terms of the pathology of the group’ (p:559). These two critiques are good illustrations of how the de-contextualisation of social phenomena and, in particular, the problematic neglect of ideological and socio-historical factors lead to a very narrow focus and a disregard of alternative, more complex understandings of prosocial behaviour. Furthermore, these important critiques suggest not only that ideology and socio-historical factors are inextricably imbedded in prosocial phenomena but that they also inform and shape the very contours and understandings of the discipline itself.

Far from seeing it as neutral, Sober (2002) repositions psychology as an ideologically and socially embedded discipline and wonders whether the popularity of a purely egoistic image of the human self is determined by a culture of individualism and competition, rather than it being due to the compelling force of the findings. Wyschogrod (2002), on the other hand, criticises mainstream social psychology for portraying altruism as a content of one’s consciousness because this does not allow for a moral understanding of prosocial behaviour. Influenced by Levinas, she argues instead that altruism is contingent on relating to others as a moral demand on the self to engage in other-regarding acts. To attribute either altruism or selfishness to genes is to see them as moral agents rather than transmitters of information.

Sturmer and Snyder (2010), in their collection on prosocial research, have pointed out that ‘the traditional focus of social psychological research has been on ‘the interpersonal context of helping [...]. Thus, in this tradition, explanations of why people help one another and why they fail to help one another typically have revolved around the role of individual dispositions, individual decision-making processes, individual emotions, and the norms that govern the interpersonal relationship between individual helpers and individual recipients of help’ (p. 4) The authors problematise the individualistic focus and argue for the necessity of research that can explain how ‘social, structural, political or epidemiological factors translate into concrete experiences, motives and action at the individual level’ and how ‘structural factors derive their subjective meaning through social and political framing processes in the context of the groups or communities to which individuals belong’ (pp. 5-6). Kegan (2002) also comments on the ideological content of psychological theories. He argues that in a society in which a large number of strangers must compete for a small number of positions of dignity, status and economic security, it is adaptive to be self-interested and disadvantageous to be too cooperative, too loyal, too altruistic or too reluctant to protest unjust advantage taken by another ‘but rather than acknowledge that the structure of our society has forced each of us to adopt self-interest as the first rule, many Americans find it more attractive to believe that this mood is an inevitable remnant of our animal heritage and, therefore, one must learn to accept it’ (Kegan, 2002: 48-49).

If there is truth in these claims, then it is hardly surprising that the integration of hard-wired factors with a more socially informed understanding of prosocial behaviour is avoided from the start and perpetuated through a very specific and narrow choice of methodologies. The danger in such in-built denial of the omnipresence of ideology and a myopic individualistic focus is indirectly identified through the work of Ervine Staub (1989, 1993, 2003). Staub, although fully embracing a mainstream psychological approach, repeatedly draws attention to what he calls the ‘societal tilt’ shared by perpetrators and bystanders. Bystanders, therefore, are in danger of also becoming perpetrators or supporting perpetrators through inaction, thus suggesting that it is urgent that social psychology actively engages in studying the socio-cultural and ideological context in which prosocial behaviour takes place (or not). As virtual bystanders to humanitarian crises, we struggle to make sense of an increasingly complex reality and our moral boundaries are drawn and redrawn in line with shifting social and global realities. The ideological, cultural and intersubjective ramifications constantly affect us and are always influential in our choices. There is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ stimulus when it portrays, for example, a dark-skinned child in Africa or a White businessman in New York. These are highly charged images that can never be decoded neutrally. Social psychology urgently needs to change and address such complexities to be able to make a useful contribution to the understanding of prosocial behaviour.

A critical approach can begin to remedy these problems by looking at the interrelatedness of factors, rather than studying them in isolation; by approaching reason and emotion not as separate and differentially valued but as they interact in the conscious and unconscious negotiations and fluctuations of subjectivity; by valuing conflict as a crucial and unavoidable factor in everyday morality; by contextualising prosocial behaviour socially, ideologically and biographically.

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