We should not judge people by their peak of excellence; but by the distance they have traveled from the point where they started.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Begging experiment...

Food and productivity and poverty are related in different ways. A chapter in the famous book," Poor economics" made me think hard on different related questions from Indian perspective and while discussing the situation with my professor in US, I thoughts of this interesting experiment which I described to him. Here are the excerpts from my mail conversations with him.

One very important solution which I thought was about how food wasted in restaurants could be utilized and distributed to poor at a nominal cost etc. and yet some kind of profit be made etc.

There is an emerging trend of cooked food wastage in Indian metros as more and more people are eating out and life styles are changing. This is especially true more on weekends when people dine out in huge numbers and often order a huge quantity of food, and waste it. Can this food be re-destributed to poor people and what kind of problems might be lurking out there?

Yes, the cost of distribution is not zero. However, if we go by the theory of food relates to productivity of poor, who can not afford food and are in poverty trap, this could be run as an experiment to distribute food from restaurants in India to beggars etc. who can do some other work, but are not doing it because they need food to eat at the end of the day to sustain their life and the entire day is spent in trying to earn some money through begging etc. (which many times is an organized activity done through Mafia etc. so at the end beggar (or child beggars) receive some thing minuscule out of their daily earnings). So this is another form of bonded labour.

So as I feel there are good smart people even in these beggars, who feel trapped because of their food requirements, such an experiment which guarantees them food of some sort through wastage in restaurants, would freed them to think more productively to do more better things than begging. So if there are 100 beggars, one might find 5 smart beggars who are really feeling trapped and are now free to use their time for better things. Rest 95 might be really happy begging and continue due to laziness etc.

India could be a test bed for so many such nice experiments, which would actually solve lot of problems.

A related article in one of the blogs that I read just now. Its from the perspective of "why people behave irrationaly in most situations". http://danariely.com/

Can beggars be choosers?
One day a few years ago I passed a street teeming with panhandlers, begging for change. And it made me wonder what causes people to stop for beggars and what causes them to walk on by. So I hung out for a while, engaging in a bit of discreet peoplewatching. Many people passed the beggars without giving anything, but there were a few who stopped. What was it that separated those who paused and gave money from those who didn’t? And what separated the more successful beggars from those who were less successful? Was it something specific about their situation, or their presentation? Was it the beggar’s strategy?

To look into this question, I called on Daniel Berger Jones, an acting student at Boston University who had just finished hiking around Europe. Not having shaved in months and already looking pretty scruffy, he was ready for the job (plus as part of his training to be an actor I figured it would be good for him to learn how to beg for money – at the time he did not see that particular benefit). So I found a street corner and placed him there to take on the panhandling trade. I asked Daniel to try a few different approaches to begging and to keep track of the approaches that made him more or less money. (Of course, after the experiment was over we donated all the money that he made to charity). The general setup was what we call a 2×2 design: When people walked by, Daniel would either be sitting down (the passive approach) or standing up (the active approach) and he would either look them in the eyes or not. So there were times when he was 1) sitting down and looking people in the eyes, 2) sitting down and not looking people in the eyes, 3) standing up and looking people in the eyes, or 4) standing up and not looking people in the eyes.

Daniel got to work, scrounging for money. He stayed on his corner for a while, trying the different approaches. And it turned out that both his position and his eye contact did, in fact, make a difference. He made more money when he was standing and when he looked people in the eyes. It seemed that the most lucrative strategy was to put in more effort, to get people to notice him, and to look them in the eyes so that they could not pretend to not see him.

Interestingly, while the eye contact approach was working in general, it was clear that some of the passersby had a counterstrategy: they were actively shifting their gaze in what seemed to be an attempt to pretend that he wasn’t there. They simply acted as if there was a dark hole in front of them rather than a person, and they were quite successful at averting their gaze.

At some point, something very interesting happened. There was another beggar on the street – a professional beggar – who approached young Daniel and said, “Look kid, you don’t know what you’re doing. Let me teach you.” And so he did. This beggar took our concept of effort and human contact to the next level, walking right up to people and offering his hand up for them to shake. With this dramatic gesture, people had a very hard time refusing him or pretending that they did not seen him. Apparently, the social forces of a handshake are simply too strong and too deeply engrained to resist – and many people gave in and shook his hand. Of course, once they shook his hand, they would also look him in the eyes; the beggar succeeded at breaking the social barrier and was able to get many people to give him money. Once he became a real flesh and blood person with eyes, a smile and needs, people gave in and opened their wallets. When the beggar left his new pupil, he felt so sorry for poor Daniel –and his panhandling ineptitude– that he actually gave him some money. Of course Daniel tried to refuse, but the beggar insisted.

I think there are two main lessons here. The first is to realize how much of our lives are structured by social norms. We do what we think is right, and if someone gives us a hand, there’s a good chance we will shake it, make eye contact, and act very differently than we would otherwise.

The second lesson is to confront the tendency to avert our eyes when we know that someone is in need. We realize that if we face the problem, we’ll feel compelled to do something about it, and so we avoid looking and thereby avoid the temptation to give in and help. We know that if we stop for a beggar on the street, we will have a very hard time refusing his plea for help, so we try hard to ignore the hardship in front of us: we want to see, hear, and speak no evil. And if we can pretend that it isn’t there, we can trick ourselves into believing –at least for that moment– that it doesn’t exist. The good news is that, while it is difficult to stop ignoring the sad things, if we actively chose to pay attention there is a good chance that we will take an action and help a person in need.

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