A morning serving of counterintuitive thinking

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Like many of you, I subscribe to two- or three-dozen morning emails that brief us on the day ahead, or the night before, or the weekend in front of us, whatever. One of the best is Quartz’ Daily Brief, which almost never fails to get my brain a’ moving with some deep thoughts.

Today, I was struck by three items the Quartz editors highlighted, all of which seem counter-intuitive and will probably have me thinking about them the rest of the day.

The first item is about the ice-bucket challenge and how it is a “cannibalistic charity.” Bottom line,  isomeone donates to the ALS Association, they are less likely to donate elsewhere:

I look at the camera, hold a bucket of ice water over my head, tip it upside down, post the video on social media and then nominate two others to do the same. Along the way, my nominees and I use the opportunity to donate to the ALS Association, a charity that fights amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also called Lou Gerhig’s disease), a fatal neurodegenerative disease. Multiply this activity 70,000 times, and the result is that the ALS Association has received $3 million in additional donations. Via the ice bucket challenge, celebrities and the general public have fun and receive publicity; at the same time, millions of dollars are raised for a good cause. It’s a win-win, right?

Sadly, things are not so simple.

The key problem is funding cannibalism. That $3 million in donations doesn’t appear out of a vacuum. Because people on average are limited in how much they’re willing to donate to good causes, if someone donates $100 to the ALS Association, he or she will likely donate less to other charities

A similar phenomenon has been studied in the lab by psychologists. It’s called moral licensing: the idea that doing one good action leads one to compensate by doing fewer good actions in the future. In a recent experiment, participants either selected a product from a selection of mostly “green” items (like an energy-efficient light bulb) or from a selection of mostly conventional items (like a regular light bulb). They were then told to perform a supposedly unrelated task. However, in this second task, the results were self-reported, so the participants had a financial incentive to lie; and they were invited to pay themselves out of an envelope, so they had an opportunity to steal as well.

I’ve highlighted several politicians engaging in the ice-bucket challenge, including U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy. And I’ve been waiting for someone to challenge me, but now I feel a little less enthusiastic about the whole thing. Is there a phenomenon to describe when an article deflates your interest in being charitable?

Speaking of money (nice segue, huh), the second item highlighted by Quartz which left me scratching my head is a piece in Bloomberg that says “money won’t buy your kids a future … In fact, it will hinder their success.”

Help with a down payment on a reasonable mortgage is probably better than buying your kids a house (or a car, or a stock portfolio, or regular cash infusions). You want to give them the tools to build a prosperous life, but if you subsidize the life itself, they’ll end up building lives they can’t really sustain without your help. And I know more than one family that was counting on a sizable cash infusion when Grandpa or Mom died, only to find out that elderly relatives can burn up an astonishingly large estate on lengthy nursing home stays.

If money won’t buy a kid a future, why am I working so hard to give Ella Joyce everything she could need? Like the story about the ice-bucket challenge, this piece left me discouraged.

Completely changing subject, the third counterintuitive item I read this morning is about how Los Angelenos who live closest to the San Andreas Fault are more affluent than those living further away. The key reason appears to be a law that was originally passed to reduce damage during a major quake.

The law mandated a 50-foot buffer zone around earthquake fault zones, to prevent building on lands most likely to crack open during a major quake.

So instead of being developed, AP Act areas in Los Angeles became parks, green open spaces that have attracted more well-off residents to the surrounding residential neighborhoods. Homes abutting the parks — de facto the lots closest to the San Andreas Fault — are today the most valuable parcels of land in these neighborhoods.

Would you have ever thought that a home closer to a fault line would be worth more than one several hundred feet away? Of course not, just like you wouldn’t think that there are cannibalistic charities or moral licensing or that money can’t make things easier for your kids.

I can’t wait for the rest of the day to unfold, so that I can learn more about what I don’t know.


Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.