Wall art of a little girl raising her hand towards a heart-shaped balloon that is flying away

Volunteering Can Depolarize The World

The day after Thanksgiving in 2019, I was driving back to my house from Savannah. I usually spend this 4-hour drive listening to a podcast and this time, I came across How to Change Your Mind (Ep. 379 Rebroadcast) hosted by Stephen Dubner, at Freakonomics Radio.

It had an interesting start – Dubner posed the importance (and relevance) of this podcast to the season, especially at a time when Americans are visiting their families to spend Thanksgiving. Stressful and frustrating conversations are often a part of a family reunion, especially with family members that don’t think like you. So this podcast explored the “brain-mind” dynamic and how/why people explore and accommodate “change” differently.

Robert Sapolsky, author, and professor of neuroscience at Stanford University; Francis Fukuyama, author and political scientist at Stanford University; Julia Shvets, an economist at Christ’s College, Cambridge; Stevan Sloman, professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences at Brown University; and Matthew Jackson, economics at Stanford University provided personal and professional takes on changing behaviors and minds.

You’d think that living in a world with all the information at our fingertips will contribute to more understanding, unity, and empathy. But apparently, the opposite is more likely true.

When people receive more information, they can be more polarized, because they “pick-and-choose”.

Jackson, the Economist at Stanford mentioned

One thing I used to think was that people if you gave them the same kinds of information, they would make decisions the same way. They might have different experiences in their past, different influences. But somehow the fundamental ways in which they think about things and process things is the same.

There was a group of about a quarter to a third of the subjects [in the study] who actually became more polarized, who interpreted the information heavily in the direction of their priors, and actually ended up with more extreme positions after the experiment than before.

So “more information” didn’t necessarily contribute to a uniting narrative, nor did it explicitly instill a course of action for mutual thinking.

Jackson continues

People tend to associate with other people who are very similar to themselves. So we end up talking to people most of the time who have very similar past experiences and similar views of the world, and we tend to underestimate that. People don’t realize how isolated their world is. You know, people wake up after an election and are quite surprised that anybody could have elected a candidate that has a different view than them.

We will need to realize that we don’t know a lot about everything. We may know what we “want” to know.

Sloman, professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences at Brown University adds

Why do you think Obamacare is good or bad, whatever you think about it? Now, the fact is, most people have very little to say about that. Most people just have a couple of slogans. They have the Republican slogan, they have the Democratic slogan; but they don’t actually know about Obamacare, because after all, it’s a 20,000-page document.

So my head started spinning. If more information (facts/opinions) don’t help people, and since we clearly can’t change people’s environments and the people/circles they associate, how on earth can people learn about each other across the aisle and build empathy and understanding?

That’s when Sapolsky, author, and professor of neuroscience at Stanford University dropped the answer

The domain that I’m most interested in these days is that change thing of turning thems into us-es — and how do we do that? And what the studies tend to show is: take somebody else’s perspective; try to go through what somebody else’s rationalizations are; individuate somebody, break them out of being an automatic them. And think about do they like the same pets that you do? Do they love their kids? Look at a picture of them singing lullabies to their children. Look at a picture of them enjoying the same food that you do. Contact — and this has been floating around for decades as a theory — give people, thems, enough contact with each other and they turn into us-es and it turns out contact works under very specialized circumstances.

You’ve got to spend a bunch of time with thems. And us-es and thems need to be in equal numbers and in a neutral setting and you’ve got to have a shared sort of goal. I mean, all of these work to at least some degree. The peoples we hated in the past are allies now. There are outgroups that spent centuries being persecuted where we don’t even know what the word refers to anymore. And in all those cases, there’s something resembling biological pathways that help thems stop being so objectionable.

That’s when it hit me – of course. What sort of action can allow you to (1) take somebody else’s perspective, (2) give people, thems, enough contact with each other, (3) spend a bunch of time (4) in a natural setting with a shared sort of goal? If you haven’t built the answer in your head already, it’s volunteering.

How can volunteering, such an “overlooked” and “underutilized” function contribute to depolarization?

When we volunteer, we come together for a common cause that we believe is important to our community. It becomes a central location/opportunity for different people in our community to come together in neutrality to advance a good deed. When people come together like this, they spend time and talk about their lives, aspirations, and experiences. “Thems” now sound and act more like “us” – with the same feelings, emotions, goals, and the seek of life, liberty, and happiness. We make friendships, learn about challenges from a different perspective and leave the event not just with more friends but after a big social impact.

Volunteering has 3-dimensions of impact; personal, professional, and social. The personal impact of volunteering can be a stepping stone for you to learn. I have gained valuable skills and knowledge through volunteering. It provides you a safe place to try out different skills you’re interested to learn, while giving back – let it be accounting, healthcare, business, carpentry, and the list goes on.

Volunteering also has a professional impact, as it can increase your employability in the changing market structures and also build connections and networks that may be a big support to you in the future.

The most obvious of all three impacts is the “social impact” as volunteering in itself contributes to advancing a cause that is important to our community. Volunteering can be an economic contributor, provide opportunities for education, save lives, and address the challenges of the next generation.

So if you’re interested in living in a depolarized world, uniting communities, spreading empathy and understanding and sharing values of humanity, encourage your friends to volunteer. Find volunteer opportunities in many platforms around the world or on IVolunteer International.


All quotes in this blog were extracted from the Freakonomics Radio and may be owned by Freakonomics Radio. Listen to this entire podcast yourself or visit Freakonomics Radio for more information. Cover photo from Eric Ward on Unsplash – a copyright-free high-quality stock image database – used in this blog for educational purposes only, with no intention of profit or revenue generation.