Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Africa: Nicholas Kristof and the Psychology of Getting People to Care (and Give)

Responding to Texas in Africa's question about why his New York Times' "columns about Africa almost always feature black Africans as victims, and white foreigners as their saviors," Nicholas Kristof replies (Africa is a Country has the video) that the American audience he writes for will respond to his stories about Africa's needy if they featured a white protagonist.

TiA thinks Krystof excuses "stereotyping in the name of awareness, while assuming that Americans are too parochial to be able to recognize, relate to, and applaud the work of people whose names sound different from [theirs]." I guess that's one way to look at it .

But I wonder if a story about some crisis in America would hold any interest for, let's say, Congolese readers, for example. How fast will they skim and turn the page? I now wonder how many of them will give the page or story a second glance if it featured some Congolese in the States helping the Americans out. Will the Congolese humanitarian protagonist in America--or the rare fact that there is one--prompt them to identify with the crisis more? Without some surveys on these audiences it's difficult to put hard numbers on any of this, but my gut tells me Kristof  is right, and disgustingly so, about how human beings--not just Americans--decide on, some time saving level, what to give their attention to. If that is the case, why then hold Americans (or any citizens for that matter of a country whose politics and trillion dollar economy affects everyone on the planet in one way or another) to any higher standards when it comes to how they, like all other human beings with a million or so things vying for their attention, go about deciding, from a quick glance and a headline, what news stories to identify with?

But TiA is right that Kristof could do better; and I agree, because having an American protagonist or "bridge character," though an extremely effective way to invoke identification from the average American audience, is by no means the only or most effective way of capturing their attention or getting them to act. Check out (below) Duke University professor of psy and behavioral economics Dan Ariely's Big Think take on the irrational psychology behind how people give:



Basically Ariely is saying people relate less to statistics about how many are dying or how miserable you can paint the African situation. Rather they identify more on an emotional level with the personal story of an "individual" -- not a "victim." Notice Ariely says nor hints nothing about the need for a white/American protagonist or so called "bridge character" which Kristof feels is so important. Kristof does write personal stories, however, listening to Ariely you get the feeling Kristof needs to dump the whole "empathy with American/white savior" framework and rather find ways to turn the African "victims" he likes to write about back into the "individuals" they really are -- by that I mean the kind of writing that reveals them as living, breathing, alcohol swirling, problem solving, pizza eating, fucking, sexual, shiting, loving, complex "individuals." Just like his readers. Then he needs to explain how these "individuals" have fallen through cracks of the global economy in worse ways than his readers, how they are now facing the worst odds imaginable and how they need help to get back on their feet and on with their lives.

Like Selinah and the Topsy Foundation illustrate below in the an ad that recently won gold at the Cannes Lions Awards, you don't need to show her off as "the white man's burden" in order to get us to care:

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