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Why we ignore global issues, according to science

Why we ignore global issues, according to science

You’ve had a long day at work. Your boss kept demanding more information on a project that you’d already had two meetings about last week. He probably wasn’t listening at the time, he was too busy bragging about his new catamaran. It took every ounce of energy you had not to strike him over the head with the weighty three-ring binder you’d been carrying around all day.

Now, as you settle down on your couch with your significant other and turn on your TV, you have two choices. The first is a documentary exploring the unfortunate treatment of Indigenous Australians since the arrival of the British. It’s likely to garner some interesting discussion but you’re both not sure if it’s worth the effort. The second is a gameshow where celebrities perform comedy segments on a set that, wait for it, tilts on a 22.5 degree angle. Which do you pick?

If this sounds vaguely familiar, you are not alone. At least one million Australians regularly pick the gameshow-with-an-angle rather than the documentary. How many times have you watched a documentary and said out loud “it should be compulsory viewing for EVERYONE”? Then what makes us more than often than not choose the gameshow?

Decisions, decisions...
Decisions, decisions…

In 1998, Roy F. Baumeister and colleagues conducted an experiment which sounds tantamount to torture. They asked participants in the experiment to skip a meal before coming in (already, I’m surprised no human rights groups were involved). They then led two groups into a room with both a bowl of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies and a bowl of radishes on the table. One group was allowed to eat the cookies, while the second were only allowed to eat radishes. A third control group didn’t enter the room at all.

Even though the radish-eaters didn’t touch the cookies, it was not without anguish. Some even went as far as to pick up a cookie and smell it, but not one participant bit into one.

All three groups were then told to go into another room where they were to solve a geometric puzzle within 30 minutes. The catch – this puzzle was impossible to solve. The cookie-eaters and those who did not enter the first room gave up after about 20 minutes. The cookie-resisters, however, only lasted eight minutes. The researchers hypothesised that exercising restraint previously had a pronounced effect on that group, and hence coined the phrase “ego depletion”.

Restraint and exercising willpower is not something that is isolated to resisting cookies. Unless you are Chris Brown, you make choices every day that fit into society’s expectations and norms. In the above example, you resist the urge to strike your boss down when he bores you. This effort may deplete you enough that you’re tempted to skip the documentary I mentioned earlier.

We know after we watch such documentaries, we often feel mentally nourished, and want to discuss what we’ve learnt with others. The initial investment is often worth the return we receive. Just like overly simplistic marketing for aid and development, there might be short-term gains, but in the long run it can be detrimental.

How do we get people to care about and invest time in issues like poverty, inequality, and human rights, if we are constantly depleted throughout the day? The evidence on this isn’t clear, though some of it is common sense. We need to ensure that we’re all getting enough rest and staying fresh. Don’t use your smartphone before bed, or even better, keep it in a completely different room. Human beings, it seems, have limited capacity to make informed decisions. Looking after your ego shouldn’t be a guilty pleasure, just common sense.

As David McRaney writes in his incredibly informative, yet accessible book You Are Not So Smart:

It is as if the mind were a terribly designed experimental spaceship. As long as the ship travels in a straight line it burns very little fuel, but as soon as the pilot takes over in any way, to dive or bank or climb, this imaginary ship burns fuel at an alarming rate, leaving behind less fuel with which to steer in the future. At some point you must return the craft to autopilot until it can be refueled, or else it crashes.

Pilger's Utopia: "should be compulsory viewing for EVERYONE"
Pilger’s Utopia: “should be compulsory viewing for EVERYONE”

On May 31, 2014, John Pilger’s Utopia will be screened on national television in Australia. You can also watch it online. The feature highlights the reality of life for many Indigenous Australians. By going back to communities he filmed 25 years ago, Pilger shows that despite rhetoric, the situation has remained unchanged for many in spite of progress elsewhere.

The most disturbing part of the documentary occurred during Australia Day celebrations, when Pilger asked revelers, usually draped in the Australian flag or with their face painted as such, how the first Australians might feel about celebrating the day their country was invaded. A few of those interviewed didn’t twig to his nuance, so Pilger had to explain that Australia’s national day was also the same day Indigenous people considered their land invaded by the British.

It was startling to see the cognitive dissonance of these white Australians. One man, clutching his wife and son, shouted over his shoulder “you’re full of shit, mate”. His depletion of his sense of self, built entirely around history as written by the British, was evident.

As Australian of the Year Adam Goodes put it, there has been a disturbing “silence” over Pilger’s Utopia, which should enrage us all. It could be that ego depletion is the culprit for much of this silence. I reckon we should all put our spaceships into autopilot as much as possible, keep fuel reserves high, and take the time to watch this amazing documentary.

Trust me. It should be compulsory viewing for EVERYONE.

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Weh Yeoh

Co-Founder & Board Member at WhyDev
Weh Yeoh was born in Sydney, Australia, and has lived, volunteered and worked in Cambodia for the past 3 years. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed an MA in Development Studies. He has a diverse background, having travelled through remote parts of Asia, volunteered in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam, interned in India, and studied Mandarin in Beijing. He is an obsessed barefoot runner and connoisseur of durian.

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