Why Do We Behave Like Sociopaths?

Aug 20, 2009 | Posted by Scott Hughes, author of Achieve Your Dreams | Post a Comment

Most of us know that numerous commendable charities exist that work to save the lives of starving children who they can feed for pennies a day. Other organizations, especially those addressing poverty in less utterly destitute places, focus more on investing in long-term solutions like changing society, turning around economies and uplifting entire communities. The long-term investments require more upfront, but if successful they will save more in the long run, just like the cost of teaching a man to fish today will cost less than just continuing to donate fish to him. Regardless, the fact is at the least we can save children’s lives for pocket change a day if not do more with it to end poverty.

However, based on my experience growing up in the United States, it seems to me the typical person in the first-world does not donate much to these charities that can save starving kids for pennies a day, nor to the ones that work to find long-term solutions. Instead, we needlessly hoard luxurious cars, expensive fashionable clothes, and bigger screen televisions, which not only puts us into a self-destructive debt, but leaves the question: How many starving children could have been fed with the extra money spent on luxuries?

But I do not think the typical person is so callous, so uncaring, so sociopathic that they would really prefer to wear a prettier shirt and let a child die than feel the joy of saving a child. So why do we do it? Let me try to guess what I think are the main reasons.

Commercialism – I think commercialism and excessive consumerism are perhaps the main reason we fail to provide more help to the needy. Unfortunately, businesspeople and corporations can get lots of money by convincing us to foolishly spend our hard-earned money on needless luxuries or other junk that we often cannot even afford. We are bombarded by billboards, TV ads, magazine ads, newspaper ads, junk mail, spam email, sales calls, and other advertisements. We put ourselves into debt for junk we do not need. People who earn enough income to not only live comfortably themselves but also help others end up in debt, unable to help others and in need of financial help themselves! We spend more but end up less happy and less secure. This is not a selfish choice, a callous choice or a sociopathic choice; this is a stupid, self-destructive choice. We cannot only blame the advertisers and businesspeople for the stupid, self-destructive choices inspired by commercialism anymore than the drug user could only blame the drug pusher. We also have to blame ourselves for our own self-destructive choices. We need to stop it.

Denial – I think denial is a common reaction to an overwhelming problem. This is especially true of problems that only bother us emotionally from our acknowledgment of them. Some kid we never met starving to death or suffering hundreds of miles away or even on the other side of the earth does not have any effect on us if we do not know about it. But because we are not sociopaths, we sympathize with them. Their pain hurts us. However, we choose to ignore it, to suppress our knowledge of it like a child suppresses memory of traumatic events. We keep it out of our mind to avoid being overwhelmed by the painful feelings of such a massive, overwhelming problem that calls for such overwhelming action to fix it. This is common, but I don’t think it is healthy. If we can be brave enough and honest enough to truly acknowledge a major problem like this and admit how incredibly terrible it makes us feel, then we can start making choices based more on reality and doing our part to work to fix it. And I think facing life’s obstacles and horrors like that will make us stronger and happier.

We don’t want to give it all up – Most of us would otherwise be willing to give up a portion of our luxuries or time to save lives. But that creates a slippery slope. If we admit to ourselves that it makes sense to buy a not-quite-as-luxurious car and fight poverty instead, then it blatantly follows that it would make just as much sense to buy an even less luxurious car and fight poverty that much more. I think it would be too blatantly inconsistent to give up a little bit, but at the time we fail to get ourselves to give it all up. Is it any surprise we choose to ignore poverty almost completely rather than take a so-called ‘vow of poverty’ and live with no luxuries? For some of us, the only solution may be a very drastic change to our excessively materialistic lifestyle. But also we have to remember that we do not just have to send all our extra money to another continent. We could invest it into our own children’s education or into starting our own local nonprofit. We could just work less and spend more time with our families or volunteering with friends. I think that would help end poverty and make us happier.

What do you think? We’re not sociopaths, so why do we behave like sociopaths when it comes to poverty? When it costs less than a buck a day to save the lives of children, why don’t we? Please post your comments about this blog post and discuss inaction on poverty in this thread at the Philosophy Forums.

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About Scott Hughes

I am the author of Achieve Your Dreams. I also published the book Holding Fire: Short Stories of Self-Destruction. I have two kids who I love so much. I just want to be a good role model for them. I hope what I do here makes them proud of me. Please let me know you think about the post by leaving a comment below!

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Children suffering from Poverty