Puerto Rico isn't that far despite what words might be used to describe it

Puerto Rico isn't that far despite what words might be used to describe it
© Greg Nash

Relief efforts from the U.S. to Puerto Rico have been slow in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Now, months after the devastation, over 20 percent of residents are still without access to clean drinking water and the majority of the country remains without electricity. Language such as President Trump’s comment about the “very big ocean” separating the U.S. from Puerto Rico can only make things worse.

In my work as a behavioral researcher and professor at Northwestern University, I find that describing a place as “nearby” or “far away” has an influence on people’s willingness to help this place in times of need. In particular, for places or people considered “nearby,” potential donors have higher expectations of making an impact, and so, because expecting to have an impact is motivating, they are often more willing to help those perceived as close.

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By contrast, thinking of a place as “far away” will have the opposite effect, making potential donors feel as if their support will have little if any impact, and hence making them less likely to help.

 

This happens because people tend to think in metaphors, understanding and experiencing one thing (charitable impact), in terms of another (physical impact). Consider for example a snowball fight. Holding force constant, throwing your snowball from 10 feet away will have a greater impact on your opponent than throwing it from 50 feet away. Thinking metaphorically, it’s not unreasonable to expect charitable actions — much like snowballs — to have more impact on people nearby than on those far away.

In his body of work on metaphors and politics, the oft-cited American linguist, George Lakoff, highlights both the importance and dangers of semantics. He describes how metaphors shape every aspect of our lives including our current political context, in which, he argues, liberals and conservatives live and act according to two different metaphors. Subtle changes in wording and phrasing can have profound psychological and motivational consequences on our thoughts and behaviors.

In recent work published in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology”, my co-author Ayelet Fishbach and I studied effect of perceived distance on the giving tendencies of university alumni to their alma mater, and of research participants to various overseas locations (Haiti, Ivory Coast).  

We found that regardless of the actual distance separating them from their alma mater, alumni were more likely to give money to their school when a fundraising request used language to describing the school as being in closer proximity, rather than further away from, the would-be donor. Similarly, research participants were more likely to donate to improve lives in Ivory Coast after reading language about globalization and shrinking distances than about long distances and long-haul flights.

To be sure, addressing homelessness, hunger, educational, environmental and other issues in our own local communities should be a priority. However, helping those outside of our community is equally crucial. With more than half of U.S. exports dependent on the success of developing countries, let us not forget that raising living standards, access, care and equality around the globe promotes economic and political stability worldwide. As John F. Kennedy once said: “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Nonetheless, in the face of a humanitarian crisis, the only thing that should matter is ensuring that those in peril receive the help they so desperately need.

So remember, no matter where you live, Puerto Rico is not that far despite what words might be used to describe it — and neither are Sudan and Myanmar. It is only a matter of perspective. Anyone can make a real impact in the world by getting involved.

Rima Touré-Tillery is an assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and a Public Voice Fellow.