Lessons from Neurobiology: Why Speed Matters in Altruism

by Mary Joyce

Probably due to pressure to be more profitable, Wired is fast becoming just another guy culture mag: articles from the current issue include a gadget profile of an electronic lock pick (“who uses it: locksmiths, detectives, military personnel”), a toned abdomen illustrating a new insulin monitor, and tips for geek dads. So I was surprised to find Scott Brown’s thought-provoking article on digital activism and neurobiology.

In “Instant Karma,” Brown writes about how neurobiology influences the likelihood someone will take altruistic action digitally. The example Brown uses is real-time micro-donations which, while certainly still slacktivism, can have real effects: they’re a big part of how Barack Obama made it into the White House.

Brown’s point is that taking altruistic action releases a “congratulatory hit of dopamine” and that when we witness “something awful” we feel an immediate desire to do something altruistic. The problem is that this desire to do good degrades quickly. If you see someone standing by a broken-down car on the side of the road, you may feel the desire to stop and help, but once you whiz by and the person is out of sight, the desire to help passes as well.

This is why speed matters. Brown gives the example of raising money for Haiti and how millions responded to Wyclef Jean’s tweet for donations soon after the earthquake hit and horrifying images were flashed on our TV screens. Alicia Keyes (apparently pop stars are particularly good digital activists) uses a similar technique. She shows videos of needy children on-stage at her concerts and then flashes a short code for donations. Audience members can send money a second after the altruism-inducing stimuli is presented.

The question of how to turn compassion into action is a complicated one, which bloggers like Ethan Zuckerman are trying to parse. The fact that digital technology allows for stimuli and response to be linked in real time is part of the answer, but just a nugget. What I found most interesting about the article is that it pointed me in the direction of another discipline with something to teach digital activism: the field of neurobiology.

The goal of the Meta-Activism Project is to make the field of digital activism smarter. This means looking beyond individual insights (real-time fundraising) to see the bodies of knowledge these insights derive from (neurobiology) and then finding ways to weave those disciplines into the knowledge-building process of digital activism.

Image Source: Leo Espinosa for Wired

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