Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Fonzie Says: Helping is Cool

I was reading a study on helping that found that children as young as 18 months old will (almost literally) knock themselves out to help people. If you drop a pencil, you want a toddler nearby - they'll snatch it up and hand it to you like they're passing you the Olympic torch. Nothing's better than helping.

Then what happens? Because by the time they're in their mid-to-late single-digit years, for most, helping has lost its appeal. I think it has something to do with our subtle social pecking-order. The people who always do extra, who get up to get stuff while others sit and get waited on, those helpful types are often, very subtly, knocked down a notch. Now if you drop something, and someone rushes to pick it up, well, he's kind of a loser. A chump. A sucker. And by the time they're teens, if you can get someone to pick something up for you, then you own them. Refusing to help becomes cool.

I watch this mind-set as I try to persuade people, adults mainly, to make the tiniest of changes. But if they do it to show support, they might get lumped in with my kind: the lowly worker bee. And we're all going to die anyway, right? Why bother double siding paper when Obama's new cap and trade bill has a target of 4% below 1990 GHG levels, and Heat suggests we need targets closer to 90% lower. Really, what's a piece of paper going to do for us. But of course, it can be hard to remember how little changes can make a difference.

So then it becomes a game of sorts to convince people to make an effort in order to make themselves look good - maybe because they can improve the status of our school or save their department money. Then they don't really have to do much as long as they present the appearance of doing something. But what would be really handy is if somehow helping out regained some status. Then people would scramble to copy less than anyone else or turn off the lights first or pick up garbage someone else left behind.

Except that, unless it's a sporting event, trying really hard is kind of
dorky. If you toss some garbage on the ground, which one of these guys is more likely to pick it up?


Being cool is all about not caring. Apathy has been edgy for decades. As soon as Fonzie started working hard to finish school, he lost it. The glasses and shark-jumping were overkill. Even just saying "school is cool" downgraded him.

The rewards of saving the earth are too far away to affect our current behaviour. And maybe it's too late anyway, or maybe technology will save the day, or maybe everyone else will work on it so I don't have to, or maybe if I don't think about it too much it'll go away and stop scaring the bejeebers out of me. So we're down to cash and honour to motivate the masses.

Unless we can popularize an uber-cool attitude: I care so much less than anyone else that I'll pick up garbage, not for the environment's sake, because I don't care about that, but just to show how little I care if people think I'm a nerd.

Any other theories on why people just don't care and/or how to shift behaviours stuck in neutral?

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