Disaster Contingencies: Does Intent Matter?

Author: Shane Spiker, MS, BCBA  & PhD Candidate 

Author: Shane Spiker, MS, BCBA  & PhD Candidate 

Since the beginning of my studies, I had always found the concept of altruism to be an interesting one. The debate on whether humans can act simply out of goodness is one that tugs at the very fabric of human nature and begs the question; can humans be inherently good? If altruism doesn’t exist, what does that mean for good will toward humankind? It’s definitely a loaded question.

So, on the surface, it’s nice to believe that people do things just for the sake of doing good. It’s a wholesome thought. But then you dig into some scientific models and begin to understand that it’s possible that maybe we don’t have such good intentions. Behavior occurs based on a series of variables related to motivation and reinforcement/punishment at its basic core. The idea that behavior occurs “just because” could be scientifically argued, even for those who are acutely well-meaning. One could argue that people do good because it feels good, so they are still getting something out of the behavior, effectively ruling out altruistic tendencies.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, I ask a different question; who cares whether altruism exists or not?

The scientific community is continuously working to answer the question of altruism and whether it actually exists. But in terms of social significance, especially in disaster situations, it doesn’t really matter.

Humans will do good. As a community, they will do even more good. It’s evident in Texas right now. We’ve seen it during the earthquakes in Haiti, tsunamis in Sri Lanka, bombings in Boston, the attacks in Paris, and the Pulse shootings in Orlando (a community that I am closely tied to on a personal level).

Possible Motivations for Do-Gooders

Let’s break it down here and look at what could possibly go into the behavior of do-gooders. There are a host of motivations that could prompt the type of responses we see in people helping in disaster situations:

·         The promise of reward

·         The potential of public recognition and praise

·         Hero status

·         Avoidance of danger

·         The avoidance of witnessing trauma to another human

·         Relevant history of loss

·         Previous exposure to disasters in their community

·         Signs of repair/well-being

The truth is that there could be any host of motivation (or no motivation at all). As human beings, we each have a unique motivation for why we do what we do. Disaster situations don’t strip humans of behavioral motivation. Conversely, it’s more likely that it activates specific motivations based on what I would refer to as “disaster contingencies.”

The Disaster Contingency and Motivation

In theory, the Disaster Contingency is a unique circumstance that prompts specific rescue behavior among many individuals within a community. Deadly and drastic situations set the occasion for a group of people to respond, specifically in heroic and lifesaving ways. The very disaster itself serves to increase motivation for specific behaviors for individuals and ultimately demonstrates a good-will behavior within the community.

So, what does our motivation matter? Does it really matter in the moment? The effect is far greater than discussing whether altruism exists. We are consistently seeing exemplars of good come out of such dire circumstances. Every day people turned heroes when the time comes. Regardless of the motivation of these behaviors, lives are being saved, communities are bonding and helping each other, and we are shown, as we are shown in every disaster contingency situation, that human beings are capable of far more good than they get credit for.

So, Let’s Do our Part and Collaborate

To diminish a disaster would be irresponsible. Lives are lost, damage is widespread, and unfortunately, the impact of these disasters last for decades for individuals and communities. Hurricane Harvey is no different. Living in the United States, this tragedy hits far too close to home. Our thoughts are with the communities who are impacted and the families who are still recovering.

We should take the time to do our part to help the communities that need us. If you can be there, please do. There are people who need you there in some capacity. If you can’t be there, donate. Send supplies. Do something. I don’t care what your motivation actually is. The POINT is recognizing that motivation doesn’t ACTUALLY matter when people can be saved and good can be done.

Donate Here:

Red Cross: www.redcross.org/disaster-relief/hurricane

Feed the Children: www.Donate.feedthechildren.org/disaster-relief

Human Society: www.humanesociety.org/donate

AARP: www.foundation.aarp.org/hurricaneharvey/donate

Local food banks, blood donation centers, fuel sources will also be helpful.