When charities let us down, we unlearn our natural desire to give
Published 09/07/2016 | 02:30
The winding-down of the suicide bereavement charity Console brings to an end not only an organisation in which people had placed their trust, but trust itself.
Console was special. It held a sacred place in the hearts of many because it reached out to people at that most critical time in their lives when they felt stricken and bereft by sudden death.
It gained their trust by igniting those most profound human emotions - altruism, empathy and compassion for those who grieve.
The revelation of the alleged actions of the founder and CEO, coming after so many betrayals of one kind or another by supposedly not-for-profit organisations, has dealt a serious blow to the charity sector. We may not be able to trust for a long time again.
If we ask where trust and altruism come from, psychological research is clear that both were primitive survival mechanisms, which served a purpose in uniting groups for the survival of the entire group. Our ancestors were primed to trust and look out for each other.
There are two related but different kinds of altruism. The first is psychological altruism, by which we act with concern for the well-being of others without any self-interest. This makes people give to 'charity', which is an old word for love.
Biological altruism helps survival of the species.
As much as we are designed to be competitive, to fight for our individual survival and our genetic continuity, we are also neurologically hot-wired to understand, empathise with and trust each other, without which survival would be under threat.
Darwin saw this in his appreciation of the goodness of 'man' and in his work on 'the expression of emotions in man and animals'. Survival of the fittest may have been incompatible with charity but survival of the species required us to love.
In essence, evolutionary theory shows that we need each other and we need to be kind to each other. We survive best when we care and take care. The impulse to give is great and serves a purpose. Altruism protects us individually and supports the group. When trust is damaged, it is not just the individual who suffers but society is harmed.
But there is more to betrayal than loss of trust in other people. Psychologically, betrayal also makes us lose trust in ourselves. We lose faith in our financial decisions. We are less confident about our judgments. We are slower to believe in other people.
We are embarrassed by not identifying duplicity, by not distinguishing true carers from charlatans and we hate to be duped. We stop giving.
And when trust is betrayed, older unresolved angers reignite - in this case, psychological and societal anger is renewed towards systems that are insufficiently robust to defend against deceit and that facilitate fraud. We ask where is regulation? Where is legislation?
We are a nation that suffered the trauma of 'light' regulation for which mainly the innocent have paid the price. Console reminds us of the absence of guardians to protect the public from hoax and to question why charitable organisations are needed in the first place to provide services that it is the obligation of governments to provide. It makes us ask in whom can we put our trust.
Irish people have a history of generous altruistic giving to not-for-profit organisations. This is partly because in an otherwise avaricious, sometimes callously profit-driven world; charitable organisations that operate from ideals of humanity appeal to us.
We respond to famine and poverty because we have epigenetic memory of starvation and need. We believe in giving to others and are proud of our record of doing so. Which is why as a people we are distressed when charities fail us.
The result is an attack on our sympathy, an affront to empathy, compassion fatigue, altruism burnout and emotional distrust - until we recover our capacity to trust again.
Dr Marie Murray is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and author.