Nov 30

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.