Open Your Eyes


By Paul Slovic

The following is the text of a talk delivered at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon in September 2018.

The story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar in today’s Torah reading has many interesting twists and turns from which to contemplate the topic that is the theme of the scientists in synagogues seminar series that Rabbi Ruhi and I will host during this new year. That topic is “Compassion and Obligation in Judaism and Psychology.”

Today I’m going to briefly discuss one particular aspect of the reading that connects to psychological research my colleagues and I have conducted, trying to understand what motivates people to help others in need and why we help in some cases and not in others.

Recall the point in the reading where Hagar and her son, Ishmael, are cast out into the wilderness with little to sustain them but a bit of bread and a sack of water. These meager provisions were quickly consumed and the pair wandered in the desert without sustenance, growing weaker. Hagar left Ishmael in a bush and, unable to watch him die, moved away from him. She raised her voice and wept. We can feel her sense of hopelessness and despair. But then God intervened to “open her eyes” and she noticed nearby a well, most likely a spring. She quickly filled the empty sack with water and saved her son.

It’s interesting that God didn’t simply just revive Ishmael directly through divine power, but rather enabled Hagar to recognize an effective solution and action she could take to rescue Ishmael. But it’s not always so easy to appreciate how effective our actions will be when we try to help others. I’ll return to this point about effectiveness in a minute.

Let’s flash forward to today’s world where there are so many people in need. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless because of the enormity of  problems, such as homelessness and food insufficiency in our own community or the tens of millions of refugees forced by violence and increasingly by climate change to flee their homes and wander their wilderness. Despite our sincere concerns and desire to help, hopelessness paralyzes many of us, our attention strays, and we turn away to address more manageable issues in our lives.

What might a psychological scientist in a synagogue say about this? I’ll give it a try.

In 1994 I carefully followed the reports of the genocide occurring in Rwanda where some 800,000 people were murdered in about 100 days. I was shocked by the indifference of the American public to this terrible news and angered by the refusal of the world’s governments to intervene and stop the bloodshed.

After the Rwandan genocide, my colleagues and I decided to study why we are so often indifferent to genocide and other mass atrocities and fail to intervene to prevent them from occurring.

By coincidence with the story of Hagar and Ishmael, our first study involved water and wells. Those who survived the genocide in Rwanda fled to the safety of refugee camps on the border with Chad. In one camp, many became sick with cholera because they lacked clean water. And they began to die from this disease. There was a desperate need for equipment to drill wells that could provide safe drinking water to the refugees.

In our study, we asked participants like yourselves to play the role of a government official in a neighboring country who had enough money to drill new wells sufficient to provide clean water to 4,500 Rwandan refugees in the camp, thus keeping them healthy and alive. But you, as the government official, could instead use the money for building schools or roads or medical facilities in your own country. What would you do? Would you send the money to drill new wells?

We split our study participants into two groups. One group was told that the camp had 250,000 refugees. The second group was told the camp had 11,000 refugees. The new wells would protect 4,500 refugees in either camp.

What we found was that participants in our study, acting as government officials, were far more likely to decide to provide equipment to help 4,500 people in the small camp. This confirmed our hypothesis that the perceived effectiveness of this lifesaving action would be determined more by the percentage of people helped, obviously greater in the small camp, than by the actual number of people helped, which was the same in both camps.

We then did another study, this time asking participants to make a real donation to a charity in order to help a starving child, identified with her name, photo, and country. We convened a second group of participants and gave them the same opportunity to donate to this child. In order to increase the donations, we gave additional information to those in the second group, calling attention to the fact that that the problem was very important—millions of people were starving in the region where the child lived. Our manipulation failed. In fact, donations dropped almost in half when donors were told that the child was one of millions in need.

In reflecting upon these two studies, we came to appreciate the role that our feelings of effectiveness play in motivating us to help those in need.

We help others not only because they need our help but because we feel good when we help; we get kind of a warm glow of satisfaction when we do something good for someone. But we don’t feel our efforts are effective and we don’t expect to get that warm glow when we help only a small percentage of those in need, as in the large refugee camp, or when we help only one girl out of millions—“a mere drop in the bucket” we may think. So then we don’t help, even though we could.

Let me give you one more example of this. In another study we found that all it took to stop some people from donating to a child they could actually help was to learn that there was one other child they were not helping—not millions and not thousands, as in the first two studies I described. Just one child not helped created bad feelings and a sense of inadequacy that dampened the warm glow. It didn’t feel as good to help the child they could help, so they didn’t help that child. This is wrong! Just because we can’t help everyone doesn’t mean we should help no one. We gave a name to this deception of our feelings. We called it “pseudoinefficacy,” a false sense of inefficacy, false because we really could do something that was meaningful and worthwhile.

Perhaps you’re wondering, “Why should we trust our feelings to motivate us when they behave so irrationally?” This is a great question. We trust our feelings to guide our behavior because most of the time relying on our feelings actually works well to guide us efficiently through our daily tasks and help us make good decisions. But reliance on feelings doesn’t always work well, as we have seen in the studies I described. The lesson here is to focus your thoughts on what you can accomplish, and its importance—rather than dwell on what you can’t do, because that may make you feel badly and stop you from doing something worthwhile.

My colleagues and I have created a website called “The Arithmetic of Compassion” to create awareness of the strange ways our minds sometimes deceive us into thinking our efforts to help others are not worthwhile when, indeed, they are truly meaningful and important. On the website we feature the starfish story that many of you likely know, originally told by Loren Eiseley, a famous American anthropologist, philosopher, and science writer. Here is what he wrote:

While wandering a deserted beach at dawn. . . I saw a man in the distance bending and throwing as he walked the endless stretch toward me. As he came near, I could see that he was throwing starfish, abandoned on the sand by the tide, back into the sea. When he was close enough I asked him why he was working so hard at this strange task. He said that the sun would dry the starfish and they would die. I said to him that I thought he was foolish. There were thousands of starfish on miles and miles of beach. One man alone could never make a difference. He smiled as he picked up the next starfish. Hurling it far into the sea he said, “It makes a difference for this one.” I abandoned my writing and spent the morning throwing starfish.

Returning to today’s reading, it is significant that God didn’t simply revive Ishmael directly through some divine power, but rather opened Hagar’s eyes to an effective action she could take to save her son.

As we begin this new year, there are millions like Hagar and Ishmael, wandering their personal wildernesses in search of survival and needing aid. We learn from the Torah not to expect divine intervention to rescue them. We need to act ourselves, as did Hagar. We need to open our eyes so as not to be dragged to the depths of despair that felled Hagar. I take this eye-opening to mean becoming alert to the possible ways we may be able to help others in need, by taking direct action ourselves, or by working with and offering financial support to some of the many fine organizations that are dedicated to addressing humanitarian crises in our community or around the world and are doing heroic work.

But some of the actions that become apparent to us may not be as simple and as fully effective as going to the nearby well was for Hagar. In that case, science can open our eyes, too, by alerting us to the ways our minds can fool us into thinking our actions won’t matter, when, in fact they do. What we learn from science is that we should not be discouraged from doing whatever we can, even when we cannot fill the entire need. As in the starfish story, even partial solutions can save whole lives.

Photograph credit: Pam Brophy / Starfish: Caswell Bay / CC BY-SA 2.0