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Volume 6 Issue 2 Highlights


So You May Know

The Irrationality Of Helping Behavior: Does VolunTourism Provide A Rational Alternative?

Arguments have been put forward over the years suggesting that the connection between voluntary service and travel & tourism is nothing short of irrational. Perhaps such points of view are warranted. Helping behavior and irrationality, as you may already know, have a long-standing relationship. Dan Ariely describes this very phenomenon in his new book, The Upside Of Irrationality. How we respond to manmade and natural disasters, in particular, whether it was the Exxon Valdez oil spill or the Southeast Asian Tsunami, demonstrate just how irrational we can be. Without question, VolunTourism has its own elements of irrationality; nevertheless, after reading Ariely's commentary, I have but one thought: "To date, VolunTourism may be the most rational form of helping behavior we have yet to introduce."

An Introduction To Irrationality: The Case of The Exxon Valdez

In Chapter 9 of his new book, The Upside Of Irrationality, Dan Ariely takes a closer look at the irrationality of helping behavior. "On Empathy and Emotion: Why We Respond to One Person Who Needs Help and Not to Many" provides us with a vivid set of descriptions and results of experimentation detailing just how irrational humans can be when it comes to helping. As what may almost seem prescient to some, Ariely mentions the Exxon Valdez oil spill. He cites an article from James Estes that appeared in the journal Science in 1991 – “Catastrophes and Conservation: Lessons from Sea Otters and the Exxon Valdez.”

I decided to read Estes piece in full. Here is how he opens his short essay:

Estes uses the words "expensive efforts to save wildlife." Just how expensive? Well, according to his calculations:

One can quickly discern from these calculations what Ariely is referring to regarding the irrationality of helping behavior. Have we not also seen similar references to numbers and the irrationality of voluntourism?

In her piece entitled "Volunteer Vacations: How To Be of Service When You Travel - - And Not Get Swindled in the Process," Sandy Stonesifer, for Slate.com, writes:

Is this a fair assessment of the irrationality of voluntourism?

The Three (3) Psychological Elements That Influence Irrational Helping Behavior

Ariely introduces us to three psychological elements that influence our irrational behavior when it comes to helping – “Closeness, Vividness, and the ‘Drop-in-the-Bucket’ Effect.” Closeness refers to exactly what you think it would – the distance between ourselves and the individual(s) we may or may not help (with distance comes a waning of the desire to help). Vividness refers to the picture in our minds of the actual events and suffering that is taking place. As with closeness the degree to which the vividness is real, i.e. close to us, the more likely we are to get involved. And finally, the ‘Drop-in-the-Bucket’ Effect, which Ariely describes this way:


Ariely doesn’t mention voluntourism by name here, but it could easily be inferred. Contrary to Ariely's point here, when confronted with the "What's the point?"-dilemma, voluntourists respond by stepping forward to become actively engaged - a step in the 'rational' direction.

I am the first to admit that voluntourism has what could be characterized as an irrational side. For example, one item that draws the immediate attention of those looking at voluntourism for the first time is the fact that voluntourists pay to volunteer. They don’t just pay; they pay thousands of dollars - between airfare, insurance, accommodations, fees, taxes, etc. - for the privilege to do so. “What?”  Talk about irrational behavior. But is it really?

In my opinion, there has been an irrational expectation not to pay for such experiences. Fully incomprehensible is the notion that vast stretches of time and relationship-building go into the initial stages of being able to connect and interact on a more personal level with communities and natural environments around the world. These 'relationship investments' will not show up on the trading floor of a financial market, in part, because we do not know how to measure them. Traditionally, it has been beyond the scope of NGOs and grassroots organizations to even attach a price tag to these foundation-building exercises, they have relied on asking people to support their efforts in the form of a donation of any size. Voluntourism gives those who concentrate their efforts on social challenges an opportunity to set a valuation on these 'relationship investments' and generate a more sustainable revenue stream to support the furthering of their development.

Certainly another aspect of the irrationality of voluntourism is the motivation to act immediately. This is clearest of all when we discuss natural and manmade disasters. Of recent note are the number of inquiries that have come from those wishing to be voluntourists to support Haiti, Chile, and China following the earthquakes in those countries. And, of course, the ‘latest voluntourism potential’: the oil spill in the U.S. Gulfcoast region. So, I think we all agree voluntourism has its issues in the irrationality department.

Does VolunTourism Represent A More Rational Approach To Helping Behavior?

When Ariely enters the segment of the chapter focused on solutions, I can’t help but think that voluntourism fits very well within the context of some of the suggestions and approaches he offers to address our irrationality. He writes:

I do not know if voluntourists create such rules and guidelines for themselves. Part of the reason that I have held such a strong affinity for voluntourism for so long is that it does not stress ‘the other’ any more than it stresses ‘the self.’ The voluntourism experience blends the concentrations on ‘other’ and ‘self’ in a manner that does not over-emphasize, or over-romanticize for that matter, one or the other. This is definitely one way to address the inconsistency of the emotional response bias – create a situation wherein the individual is not confronted with something that will lead to a strictly emotional response. Voluntourism gives us a chance to embark on a travel experience that serves others and serves self – Remember: balanced engagement rooted in reciprocity – it is much easier to view this from a rational mindset.

In addition, voluntourism does something else. It gives the voluntourist a chance to come into close contact with the issue, the social challenge, face-to-face (providing Closeness). Doing so in a rational manner, i.e. through the voluntourism experience itself, provides travelers with some context and an opportunity to feel the emotion, yet in a safe environment and in the company of others who can assist in the processing of that emotion in real time (offering Vividness). Then, the voluntourist can ask questions and speak directly with residents to discover what is a possible follow-up response - - one that is in alignment with the real needs of the community (counteracting the Drop-In-The-Bucket Effect).

Voluntourism has in no-wise achieved a perfected state; it is still very much in its infancy. Nevertheless, after reading Ariely’s words, I am convinced that voluntourism represents a breakthrough in the emotional response to helping. Voluntourism affords us a chance to strengthen our relationships with the world around us, helping the globe to shrink and the prospects of supporting efforts that address millions of lives potentially more real from a cognitive-emotional standpoint. It breaks down the proximity barrier to our emotional responses and assists us in seeing just how relevant our ‘help’ can be. It also gives us a chance to explore a world that is not solely based upon an outdated paradigm whereby hands-off contributions are the preferred modus, but opens the doorway to fulfillment of a desire to be freely supportive of new ‘friends’ and ‘relatives’ whom we meet in distant, and not so distant lands. Most of all, voluntourism gives ‘helping’ a chance to transform and reinvent itself, just in time to meet the dawning of a new millennium.

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