Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Fine Chocolate and Altruistic Behavior

I came across a story that captures essential elements of the human existence—helping others and fine chocolate.

The Quichua people live in the Ecuadorian rain forest, and they grow cacao (the beans from which chocolate is made). For many years, they struggled along, selling these beans for 20 cents a pound to a middleman who then sold them to a large chocolate maker. They wanted to make more money from their cacao, but they didn’t know how to make that happen.

Along came Judy Logback, a woman from Kansas who was volunteering with an organization promoting biodiversity. The first thing she did was arrange for them to take the beans to market themselves, where they got a full 48 cents a pound! (It’s good to be the middleman). This was good, but after several years the Quichua people wanted even better—they wanted to make and sell their own chocolate.

Ms. Logback hired an expert to teach the cacao farmers how to ferment their own beans, and she found a chocolate maker in the United States to create a formula for them. Yet another American loaned them money and hired Swiss chocolate makers to teach them how to make fine chocolate.

As a result of this assistance, the Quichua formed a chocolate cooperative that includes 850 families. The cooperative buys the cacao beans from the families for a full $1.95 a pound—a long way from the meager 20 cents they started with. They make chocolate at their own factory, and it is sold at Whole Foods Markets under the name “Kallari,” and it is praised as “smooth, rich and straightforward.” (Come to think of it, I would like to have those characteristics myself).

In this story, the hard work of one volunteer dramatically changed the lives of thousands of people: ‘“Judy really sacrificed a lot for us,” said Elías Alvarado, Kallari’s director of production and natural resources. “The people in the communities really love her for what she has done.’”

What Ms. Logback did probably represents an instance of altruism — helping others without expectation of getting rewards for oneself. Why did Ms. Logback, or anyone for that matter, act altruistically? We could attribute altruistic behavior to people’s personality; e.g., she is a loving, caring person who gives to others. This is probably quite true, but sociologists who study altruism have found a variety of social factors that affect whether or not we help others.

For example, sociologists have found that the more people who could help in a given situation, the less likely that any one person will offer to help. So, if you’re there watching someone in need, you’re less likely to do something if there are other people watching too. Sociologists call this a bystander effect, and they explain it as the result of diffusion of responsibility.

If we see others around as well, we might think that they are going to help, or that they are better able to help, and so we don’t do anything. The end result could be a bunch of good-hearted people standing around, doing nothing to help. (For a truly horrifying example of this, read about Kitty Genovese). So, perhaps Ms. Logback wouldn’t have helped the Quichua if there had been other aid workers working with them.

Another factor involves how we explain why people need help. It’s not just enough for us to see people in need, we have to think of them as deserving of help.

Various sociological studies have found that we’re less likely to help someone if we think they don’t deserve it or if the problem is their own fault. One classic study involved a “confederate” (someone helping the researcher, not a Civil War reenactor) falling down on a subway. Sometimes the confederate acted like he/she was drunk, other times they did not, and the researchers then watched how quickly people went to help the fallen person. Sure enough, the subway riders were much less likely to help the fallen person who appeared drunk. It turns out that how we determine why someone is in need affects whether we help them. Perhaps Ms. Logback would have been less helpful if she had viewed the Quichua as somehow responsible for their own poverty.

Finally, people are more likely act altruistically if they see others acting altruistically. This is called the modeling effect, and it suggests that we learn from others, or at least are inspired by them. Studies have found that if we see a person put money into a charity box, we’re more likely to do so ourselves. Perhaps Ms. Logback watched other people in her organization do good work for indigenous peoples, and that led her to try the same herself.

Helping others is a matter of the soul and the heart, but it is also influenced by a variety of social factors. The social conditions of any given circumstance might determine whether you do the right thing and live a life with fine chocolate.

(Originally published in


Knumb said...

Ecuador, chocolate, altruism, 3 of my favorite things....

Some really interesting stuff in this post.

lillian said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.