10: Spreading altruism with a pyramid-selling technique

In my contribution to last year’s Compendium, I referred to the obvious need to pay more attention to the implications of our personal decisions from a public interest perspective. The growing anonymity of our lives, which is strongly associated both with the geographical spread of daily activity and easy access to home entertainment, has nurtured a culture of self-interest. People we do not know represent an increasing proportion of those whose paths we cross in the course of our lives outside the home, yet it is instinctive to feel more accountable to those we recognise and may meet again, particularly if we know them by name. Likewise, we care more and therefore take more care to protect and enhance the environments in which we spend more of our time.

The expression of self-interest can be seen in the way we exercise choice to raise the quality of our own lives and attempt to minimise the risks to which we ourselves are exposed. Business and government have, perhaps unwittingly, connived at making more acceptable a disregard of the consequences of our own actions on others. After all, it is argued, evolution has resulted more from the fittest surviving and from their exploitation than from the practices of caring and sharing.

Are there personal strategies that can be adopted that would go some way towards countering this process and that could provide a practical medium in which that other aspect of human nature – our innate altruism – can find expression? One strategy with that objective in mind could be based on the same principle as ‘pyramid selling’. Individuals could be encouraged to perform public interest or Samaritan acts when they felt like it, and in that way contribute to the common weal. It could become the norm that, where there was a recipient, he or she would undertake to perform at least two such acts. It would not matter if there were a certain amount of default for a momentum would be built up by those who did do so. Schools could be involved in order to inculcate in children the habit of thinking of others.

These acts could take any form, depending on circumstances and available opportunities – helping someone to cross the road, planting a few flowers in a public space, picking up street litter; collecting bottles or cans for recycling from those not in a position to take them to the ‘banks’, volunteering time to help the needy, and so on. At the least, wider appreciation of the fact that we all benefit from the promotion of goodwill, conviviality and community well-being would be encouraged.

A short publicity exercise with involvement of the mass media would be needed initially to launch the idea, with perhaps a simple code word or symbol used to indicate that the act was part of the pyramid process. Perhaps it could be planned to start on the first day of the Millennium – with the code greeting ‘New Millennium’ or the symbol being a small biodegradable sign on the site of the improvement.

DIY Futures – People’s ideas and projects for a better world (eds. Nicholas Albery et al.) 1996. (A technique for escalating the frequency with which public-spirited acts are undertaken.)

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