Thursday, October 10, 2013

Quality of Mercy

It is one of those days when I feel incredibly dumb and yet so good at the same time, to be in a place with extremely talented people. Part of it comes because of this class I take every Wednesday that requires me to read long papers on experiments that folks at decision sciences conduct to study human behavior. Today was my turn to present in the class and I had to look at experiment that measures altruistic behavior in people. In the experiment, the authors put a person in front of a shopping mall who rings a bell but doesn't explicitly ask for a donation. In another case, they put a person who rings the bell but explicitly solicits donation. They also repeat this with two solicitors. 

They find out that people when asked, give 75% more donations than when they are not asked. Also, 30% of the people avoid the door where the solicitor is standing and choose the door where no one is standing when they see that the solicitor explicitly asks them for money. They do not avoid a door where there is a solicitor who does not explicitly ask for a donation.

So basically, the authors are list various reasons to figure out why people like to help others and how a verbal "ask" creates a feeling of empathy that makes people give money. But it looks like people go out of their way to avoid a situation where they will be asked for a donation. So it is not the act of giving that people avoid as much as the act of being asked. They still don't know why people do that.

All through the time I was put together the presentation, I was thinking how profound this concept was and that I was actually studying this with the academic rigor that was expected out of me.

I was also thinking about Portia's monologue in The Merchant of Venice, in which she implores Shylock to show mercy on Antonio

The quality of mercy is not strain'd.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

The quality of mercy is not strain'd? Academic literature thinks otherwise. :-)

However, I wouldn't be here if it weren't for the kindness of people who never knew me when I sought their help. And somehow that makes me believe in the quality of mercy, more so now than ever.

P.S: I titled the presentation with the same title as this post..