Author Archives: Kevin Betts

Are you afraid to go to Mexico? Mental shortcuts may promote misperceptions about risk

By Kevin R. Betts

Whenever I mention growing up in Metro Detroit to people in my current city of Fargo, I find myself begrudgingly answering questions about street crime and gang violence — regional attractions and achievements, in contrast, are rarely mentioned. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising given Detroit’s current label as “America’s most dangerous city” and generally gritty reputation. But I can understand why Mexico’s tourism division speaks of fighting battles against misunderstood risks and geographical imprecision propagated by politicians and the media. Speaking to Newsweek about Mexico’s recent achievements, a Mexican official says “Everything you do is like the fourth paragraph. It should be the headline.

The generalized American fear of traveling to Mexico is not without reason. The country’s drug war alone has lasted four and a half years and left 35,000 dead. Yet, politicians and the media speak of this violence as if it were the only story to be told about the country. In reality, risks faced by Americans in Mexico are quite low. Newsweek’s Bryan Curtis crunches the numbers: “…if you look at the number of Americans killed in Mexico since the drug war began in 2006, and then isolate the number of innocents “caught in the crossfire,” it amounts to only 10 or 20 killings per year….This is in a country with hundreds of thousands of American expats and more than 17 million American tourists.” David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute, confirms: “It would be naïve to say there is zero risk…But it would be alarmist to say the risk is much higher than ‘very low.’

So why do so many Americans fear crossing their southern border? It probably has a lot to do with the way in which we process information about unknowns. The availability heuristic, for example, is a rule of thumb we use to predict the likelihood of events based on the ease with which examples can be brought to mind. When we think of Mexico, we may visualize beheadings, kidnappings, and mass graves — images that have been provided for us by politicians and the media in recent years. Just as our attention is drawn toward these acts of violence, our attention is drawn away from Mexico’s natural beauty, delicious food, and friendly people. Another rule of thumb known as the representativeness heuristic contributes to this misperception by leading us to judge the probability of one event by finding a comparable event and assuming the probabilities will be similar. So when we hear about violence in Ciudad Juárez, we wrongly assume that violence is commonplace in places like Acapulco as well. Or more precisely, when we hear about violence in Ciudad Juárez, we wrongly assume that all parts of the city are equally dangerous.

Residents of Detroit understand that their community is more than “America’s most dangerous” and violence in one part of the city says little about violence in another part of the city. Likewise, Americans should realize there is more to Mexico than drug wars and that violence in one region says little about violence in other regions.

Read more:

Bishop, M.A. (2006). Fast and frugal heuristics. Philosophy Compass, 1/2, 201-223.

Come on in, the water’s fine (Newsweek)

America’s most dangerous cities (Forbes)

How Netflix just made a bad thing worse

By Kevin R. Betts

Netflix witnessed a storm of customer outrage and tumbling stock prices this month as they dramatically increased their price for subscription to the service. Early this morning, CEO Reed Hastings reacted with an email to customers. The email started, “I messed up. I owe you an explanation.” And an explanation did follow – not only about why the price hike would continue, but also about how subscribers would now be paying for two services, Netflix and Qwikster, if they wished to continue with the full set of features previously provided. I predict that this latest move will lead to even more problems for the company.

I am a longtime subscriber to Netflix and enjoy their DVD and streaming services immensely. Sure, I was irritated with the dramatic price increase just like many other customers. But I accepted it and opted to continue receiving their services. The latest change has led me to reconsider my options, however. I enjoy movies and television, but do I really need to subscribe to more than one independent service provider for this? I never saw a reason to subscribe to Hulu plus or Amazon Prime for their video services because Netflix was already meeting my needs. So why should I subscribe to both Netflix and Qwikster? I shouldn’t and I now intend to update my video subscription service accordingly.

What Netflix must realize is that my decision to opt out of one service has little to do with its actual price. Hastings makes clear in his email to customers that “There are no pricing changes (we’re done with that!).” Rather, it is my perception that has changed. I do not want to pay for two very similar video services. And I predict that many other customers will think and react similarly. Consider research addressing the effectiveness of partitioned versus bundled pricing. Sheng, Bao, and Pan (2007) state, “It is profitable to partition a total price into two separate parts only when the surcharge is relatively small compared to the base price, or the surcharge has a well-justified purpose. Otherwise, an all-inclusive price might generate higher purchase intentions, thus increasing demand.” Not only did Netflix partition its prices in such a way that has already proved to drive away customers, but they now want us to continue our patronage through two independent service providers. And away go another group of subscribers.

I hope that Netflix has thought about this issue more than I have because it is likely to have long-term consequences for their success as a company. Dramatic price hikes this month drove enough customers away. Making it psychologically easier for us to forgo their services is unlikely to make things better.

Read more:

Netflix renames DVD-by-mail service, adds video games (CNN)

Sheng, S., Bao, Y., & Pan, Y. (2007). Partitioning or bundling? Perceived fairness of the surcharge makes a difference. Psychology and Marketing, 24, 1025-1041.

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Don’t be a hero! Benefits of the bystander effect

Patrons exit a crowded soccer stadium

By Kevin R. Betts

I started reading a book this weekend titled, “The Perfect Swarm: The Science of Complexity in Everyday Life.” Author Len Fisher’s central idea is that understanding swarm intelligence can help us make better decisions. Swarm intelligence refers to the collective behavior of decentralized organisms, whether they be locusts, ants, humans or otherwise. The inside cover reads, “…we can use swarm intelligence to start a craze, to work better in committees and get more from our social networks, or even to know when we should change our minds.” Stated simply, it is sometimes in our best interest to just follow the crowd.

As a student of social psychology, one particular question that Fisher asks caught my attention. When in an emergency situation, how can one best navigate a crowd to exit an area where others are also trying to exit? Real life examples of such situations include the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001 as well as the nightclub fires in Rhode Island in 2003 and Moscow in 2009. Fisher’s recommendation is that potential victims head straight for the exits and continue onward until they are at a safe distance. He suggests that this ideal strategy is often impeded, however, by individuals who stop to seek out loved ones or secure their belongings and interfere with the flow of exiting traffic. What Fisher is suggesting is that we not try to be heroes. Rather, we should get the heck out while we can and expect that others are doing the same!

Fisher’s solution to this problem caught my attention because it promotes safety by discouraging helping behavior. It is known that in emergency situations where many people are present, people often fail to provide assistance because they either do not notice the incident, fail to interpret it as an emergency, or fail to assume responsibility. In the case of the 2001 terrorist attacks or the nightclub fires, it is probably the failure to assume responsibility which discourages helping the most. Social psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the bystander effect and have focused much effort on techniques to overcome it. This is because in most cases, it is socially advantageous to help. For example, coming to the aid of an individual experiencing a heart attack on a crowded street might save a life. Yet, as Fisher makes apparent, other situations exist where the best way to help others is simply to help ourselves.

Few of us will ever find ourselves in situations like those experienced by victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks or Rhode Island and Moscow nightclub fires. If we are so unfortunate, however, we might wish to take Fisher’s advice by at least considering whether our assistance would be of any value. What would you do in this situation? Do you expect that your loved ones would do the same?

Read more:

5 years after a nightclub fire, survivors struggle to remake their lives (New York Times)

Hoefnagels, C., & Zwikker, M. (2001). The bystander dilemma and child abuse: Extending the Latané and Darley Model to domestic violence. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31, 1158-1183

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Should Pakistan be considered a terrorist state?

By Kevin R. Betts

When the U.S. SEAL team raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan earlier this month, they did so without any approval from Pakistani officials. They covertly flew helicopters into the region, raided the compound in a fierce firefight, and killed bin Laden and several others. The secretive nature of this raid follows from years of American distrust toward Pakistan, an ostensible ally in the fight against terrorism. Recent events have merely added fuel to the fire. Given that the U.S. was able to locate bin Laden from thousands of miles away, Americans are now asking why Pakistani military and intelligence agencies couldn’t do the same within their own country. Bin Laden resided in an elaborate compound only 80 miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, and just 800 yards from a major military academy. Was Pakistan truly unaware of bin Laden’s whereabouts, or were they complicit in maintaining his cover?

The nature of this question poses an international Prisoner’s Dilemma. Emerging from game theory, the Prisoner’s Dilemma demonstrates why two parties might not cooperate even if it is in both of their best interests to do so. Generally, such situations require that each party choose between cooperating and defecting with the interests of an adversary. In the present scenario, Pakistan can choose to cooperate with the fight against terrorism or not. Salman Rushdie from Newsweek points out that “Pakistan is alarmed by the rising Indian influence in Afghanistan, and fears that an Afghanistan cleansed of the Taliban would be an Indian client state, thus sandwiching Pakistan between two hostile countries.” However, Pakistan also receives billions of military and intelligence boosting dollars from the United States. Thus, it may be in Pakistan’s interests to ignore certain terrorist activities (defect) while simultaneously appearing bound to U.S. interests (cooperate).

Defecting can grant the most valued outcome in a Prisoner’s Dilemma because it does not require compromise with the adversary’s demands, but this outcome is realized only if the other party chooses to cooperate at the same time. For instance, Pakistan could ignore (or support) terrorist activities while still accepting U.S. funds. If both parties choose to defect, the least valued outcome will result. In this scenario, Pakistan loses U.S. funding and the U.S. loses an ally in the fight against terrorism. Mutual cooperation grants each party a moderately valued but mutually beneficial outcome. Given that the United States has cooperated with Pakistan by providing monetary assistance, it is hoped that they will cooperate as well by assisting in the fight against terrorism.

Given this international Prisoner’s Dilemma, the U.S. must now make judgments about whether Pakistan has cooperated or defected. Many have argued that Pakistan has long been defecting, and that their apparent lack of knowledge about Bin Laden’s whereabouts reveals that this defection continues. Others argue that despite select intelligence failures, Pakistan remains an important ally to the U.S. in a region laden by terrorist threats. Whether the U.S. perceives Pakistan as having cooperated or defected will likely influence their decision about whether they should cooperate or defect themselves. What do you think? Should the U.S. continue to consider Pakistan an ally, or do recent events require a change in perspective?

Read more:

Pakistan: A Terrorist State (Newsweek)

Evans, A.M., & Krueger, J.I. (2009). The psychology (and economics) of trust. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3, 1003-1017.

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Inspire magazine: Senseless extremist propaganda or effective recruitment tool?

Inspire Magazine, Spring Edition

By Kevin R. Betts

As millions of Americans tune in to news coverage about the death of Osama Bin Laden this week, a much smaller but equally ambitious group of Westerners are carefully reading and perhaps adopting the views put forth by contributors to the Spring issue of Inspire magazine. Contributors to this controversial and provocative English online magazine hope to inspire Western youth to take violent action against fellow Westerners in defense of Islam. In the most recent issue, contributors celebrate killings of Western service men and women, provide guidance on how to operate a Kalashnikov rifle, and discuss how current protests in the Middle East may be beneficial for terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. Before we write this magazine off as senseless extremist propaganda, let’s take a moment to seriously consider whether Inspire might actually be effective in at least partially meeting its intended goals.

Like other magazines, Inspire exerts both informational and normative influence over its readers. The information the magazine provides is of considerable value to its readers because it is unique and difficult to find through other means. Without explicit training, most Westerners wouldn’t know how to operate a Kalashnikov rifle. Likewise, few if any Western news contributors express the view that current protests in the Middle East may be beneficial to groups such as al Qaeda. Inspire provides English speaking readers with unique and valuable information that is not available to them through traditional venues. The normative influence that Inspire exerts over its readers is more subtle. The prevailing view among Westerners seems to be that violence enacted in defense of Islam is deplorable. Inspire suggests that this violence is not only legitimate, but desirable. Knowing that they have the support of others, readers that accept this divergent perspective may begin to engage in new behaviors that are consistent with it. These behaviors may range from mere support for extremist goals endorsed by the magazine to actual violence against Westerners. Inspire seems to effectively provide information that interested readers consider valuable, and presents this information in a light that makes it appear normative.

So Inspire may be at least partially effective in meeting its goals. English speaking Westerners—perhaps even some of your friends and neighbors—will read this magazine and make judgments about it. Some of these judgments will be in favor of the views expressed by contributors to the magazine. What do you think? Will Inspire inspire many Westerners to support and/or engage in violent defense of Islam? Or will its message fall on deaf ears along with other senseless extremist propaganda?

Read more:

Bin Laden is dead, Obama says (New York Times)

Chilling tips in al-qaeda magazine (Al Jazeera)

Smith, J.R., & Louis, W.R. (2009). Group norms and the attitude-behavior relationship. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3, 19-35.

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Social support as a psychological stressor, implications for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head at a political rally in January

By Kevin R. Betts

Some of you will remember my post back in January about Jared Loughner, the 22 year old who shot and killed six people and wounded 14 others at a political rally in Arizona. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was seriously wounded in the shooting by a shot to the head. The story of Giffords has since received extensive attention by major news agencies. Colleagues, political supporters, and perhaps most of all, her husband, have eagerly awaited Gifford’s recovery and hoped for her successful future in politics.  The impact of social support on recovery from such hardships has been studied extensively by social and health psychologists. What effect, if any, might social support have on recovery efforts like those of Giffords?

The intuitive assumption of many laypersons—that social support aids recovery—is not completely accurate. To be sure, recipients of social support often gain strength from the social support they receive during hardships. Yet, social support can also hinder recovery efforts if administered inappropriately. Researchers Rafaeli and Gleason (2009) find that social support can undermine the recipient’s sense of self-efficacy, focus the recipient’s attention on the stressor, and make the recipient feel indebted to the provider. The combination of these factors and others may lead recipients to perceive social support as an additional stressor. Rafaeli and Gleason (2009) emphasize that social support can promote positive health outcomes, but only when the right type of support is provided at the right time. For instance, reassuring a recipient that she is capable of overcoming some stressor may be stressful if she is already confident in her abilities (because it could undermine her sense of self-efficacy). It might make more sense in such cases to speak of the positive outcomes that will result once the stressor is “inevitably” overcome.

Findings like these may be especially relevant to Giffords’ recovery efforts. Supporters of Giffords would like to see her make a complete recovery that allows her to continue work in public office. At a fundraiser in March, supporters raised $125,000 in pledges to sustain her 2012 reelection campaign. The support that Giffords has received from supporters is profound. Yet, expectations set for her may be unrealistic. Neurosurgeon Dr. Dong Kim asks, “If somebody has a severe brain injury, are they ever going to be like they were before? The answer is no.” Given limits to how fast one can recover from such a serious injury, Giffords may perceive these support behaviors as stress inducing. Giffords still has a lot of recovering left to do before returning to office can even be considered. If we wish to see Giffords make the fastest recovery possible, it may be wise for the public to set our expectations aside for a while and just let her recover.

Read more:

What’s really going on with Gabby Giffords? (Newsweek)

Rafaeli, E., & Gleason, M.E.J. (2009). Skilled support within intimate relationships.  Journal of Family Theory and Review, 1, 20-37.

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Why do we join groups?

By Kevin R. Betts

It seems that we are all a member of at least one group; most of us are a member of many. Although our membership within some of these groups is probably involuntary (e.g., family), we go out of our way to join other groups. We join book clubs, bowling leagues, congregations, and tag-football teams, just to name a few. Some of us even go so far as to join extremist groups such as terrorist cells or violent political movements. What draws us to seek membership within these varied groups? Why are we willing to sacrifice our own time, energy, and resources for the sake of the groups to which we belong?

Hogg, Hohman, and Rivera (2008) examined these questions from a social-psychological perspective by contrasting three motivational accounts for group membership. These explanations originate from work on the sociometer model, terror management theory, and uncertainty-identity theory. The sociometer model argues that people have a need to be belong, and that self-esteem acts as a meter of successful group belonging. Greater feelings of inclusion within groups should equate to higher levels of self-esteem according to this model. Terror management theory argues that people are motivated to reduce fear of their own death, and that groups provide consensual belief-confirmation that drives their members to belong. It is comforting to share our world views with like-minded others and to hear them share similar views because it provides us with a sense of meaningful existence. Uncertainty-identity theory argues that people have a basic need to reduce uncertainty about themselves and their place in the world, and that group identification can reduce such uncertainty. Group membership may reduce this uncertainty through its associated norms that prescribe attitudes, feelings, and behaviors for us.

Hogg et al. (2008) conclude that the sociometer model, terror-management theory, and uncertainty-identity theory each play a role in explaining why people join groups. Yet, they argue that uncertainty-identity theory might provide an especially powerful explanation because of its wide generality to all groups and group contexts. What do you think? Do these explanations account for why you joined the groups that you are a part of, or does some other framework better explain your reasons for group membership?

Read more:

Hogg, M.A., Hohman, Z.P., & Rivera, J.E. (2008). Why do people join groups? Three motivational accounts from social psychology. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2, 1269-1280.

Inside Al Qaeda (Newsweek)

N.Y. Anti-Mosque Leader Defends Group that Clashed with British Police (Newsweek)

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Strategic advantages to helping international out-groups

U.S. aid workers load supplies for relief efforts in Japan

By Kevin R. Betts

The United States has played a supportive role in at least two major world events recently. In response to a natural disaster in Japan, U.S. officials sent monetary and human resources to aid in recovery efforts. In response to government-backed violence in Libya, U.S. officials helped initiate a no-fly zone to protect civilians. One thing that is interesting about these prosocial acts is that they both involve the U.S. helping an out-group. Taking away from limited  resources that might be devoted to local problems, the U.S. has voluntarily sought to help members of the international community. Why might the U.S. see value in helping these international out-groups at the expense of problems at home? Are the intentions of the U.S. government purely humanitarian, or might officials see a more strategic advantage to helping these international out-groups?

Research by van Leeuwen and Täuber (2008) suggests that helping an out-group also garnishes some benefits for the in-group. For one, the act of helping in and of itself is associated with power differentials which may reduce the recipient’s degree of autonomy. When the U.S. offered assistance to disaster-ravaged Japan and war-torn Libya, they placed these countries in a position of dependency on the U.S. Even if assistance is welcomed, it carries with it the implied notion that the U.S. is qualified and able to provide help where these countries cannot help themselves. Helping out-groups also renders the in-group a sense of meaningfulness and purpose to the degree that being able to help implies that the in-group is valued and needed. Providing assistance to Japan and Libya confirms the beliefs of many American citizens that their country holds a valuable position in the world such that other countries rely on their help. Third, out-group helping promotes a favorable image of the in-group in the eyes of beneficiary out-groups and other outside observers. Providing help to Japan and Libya alerts the international community that the U.S. promotes humanitarian values and goals.

Whether or not U.S. officials recognize all of these advantages to helping international out-groups is unclear. Nonetheless, the recent prosocial actions of the U.S. can be expected to sway the power differential in the favor of the U.S., promote a sense of meaningfulness and purpose among American citizens, and enhance the image of the U.S. abroad.

Read more:

Tsunami aid and relief: How you can help

Gunfire, explosions heard in Tripoli

van Leeuwen, E., & Täuber, S. (2008). The strategic side of out-group helping. In S. Stürmer, & M. Snyder (Eds.), The psychology of prosocial behavior (pp. 81-99). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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Cooperation begets cooperation

Volunteers organize to fight a Spring flood in Fargo, ND. Image courtesy of Adam Fetterman.

By Kevin R. Betts

When we anticipate that others will act cooperatively, it is easy for us to cooperate too. Donating money, volunteering, and other altruistic behaviors are all easier to engage in when we trust that others similar to us will engage in similar actions. In contrast, we may hesitate to act cooperatively when we anticipate that others will not follow suit. If we do not believe that others will contribute to collective goals to the same degree we have, our interest in engaging in these cooperative pursuits may begin to dwindle. But what would happen if we acted cooperatively even when we anticipated that others would not? Our cooperative efforts might be taken advantage of initially, but we might also inspire others to begin acting cooperatively down the line.

A study by Rahn (2008) provides evidence for this assertion. She predicted that interpersonal trust would encourage cooperation under some circumstances, while the reverse relationship would be true under other circumstances. That is, cooperation may lead to trust so long as it is reciprocated. To investigate this hypothesis, her research team interviewed 730 adults from 47 different communities. She asked respondents to evaluate the trustworthiness of residents in their community, to indicate their personal level of engagement in their community, and to specify the degree to which they felt they could have an impact on making their community a better place. Additionally, she sought out response rates to the 2000 U.S. Census and crime rates as objective measures of cooperation by community. Her results revealed that in communities characterized by high levels of cooperation, perceived trustworthiness of community members tended to also be high. In some communities, high levels of trust led to cooperation. In other communities, reciprocated cooperation led residents to trust one another.

Rahn’s (2008) findings allude to the idea that cooperation may enhance interpersonal trust so long as that cooperation is reciprocated. Returning to our original question, it may be worthwhile to engage in cooperative acts even when we do not expect others to do the same. If cooperation inspires trust, and trust inspires cooperation, then cooperation may also beget cooperation.

Read more:

Impact your world (CNN)

Rahn, W.M. (2008). Cooperation with and without trust: Evidence from local settings. In B.A. Sullivan, M. Snyder, & J.L. Sullivan (Eds.), Cooperation: The political psychology of effective human interaction (pp. 259-274). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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Help yourself by helping others: Lessons from the Fargo flood fight

Image created by contributors to the Fargo Forum

By Kevin R. Betts

Around this time of year almost annually, residents of Fargo, ND and surrounding cities get together to do something most people couldn’t imagine doing even once. They self-mobilize to fight a flood that threatens to destroy the livelihoods of thousands of citizens. Residents voluntarily take time off from work or school, show up at various locations specified by city officials, and fill and place millions of sandbags. In 2009, residents witnessed a 43 foot river crest that likely would have overtaken the city without these efforts. With record precipitation levels this year, city officials are again asking residents to volunteer their time to flood protection efforts. This year’s goal: three million sandbags.

If you imagine yourself faced with fighting a flood year after year to save your own city, you might direct your attention to the psychological or financial costs of such a fight. And certainly these costs are real. Yet, as a current resident of Fargo, I can tell you that volunteers in this effort accrue social and psychological benefits as well. I’ve listened to friends and neighbors describe these benefits, as well as experienced them myself. For example, the yearly flood fight brings the region’s citizens together in unique ways. Ensuring that the region is protected from the flood is a common goal that all the volunteers share. Thus, volunteers can often be seen working collaboratively with individuals they might not normally associate with. It is clear that volunteers derive a sense of self-worth from having contributed to these common goals as well. Working together and helping one another feels good. It is with an immense sense of pride that volunteers can say that they themselves prevented an environmental catastrophe.

My observations and experiences in Fargo suggest that volunteer work has social and psychological benefits. Research by Piliavin (2008) supports this notion empirically and takes it one step further. She provides evidence that volunteer work over one’s lifetime contributes not only to positive psychological health outcomes, but also to positive physical health outcomes. She draws these conclusions based on longitudinal data from 10,317 women and men who varied in the extent to which they volunteered throughout their lives. Although the manner in which lifelong volunteer work impacts psychological and physical health is complex, it is not difficult to understand because it follows a relatively straightforward path. First, volunteering enhances social integration. Second, social integration attained through volunteering promotes volunteer motives and identity. Third, this volunteer identity promotes a sense of personal worth from having contributed to helping others. Finally, this sense of personal worth enhances psychological well-being which can impact physical health. This is important. People who volunteer consistently throughout their lives are healthier psychologically and physically as a result.

Although the costs of fighting a flood almost annually are enormous, my observations along with research by Piliavin (2008) suggest that volunteers may accrue some benefits. If you are looking for another reason to volunteer your time to cause that matters to you, remember that you may be doing more than helping others. You may be helping yourself!

Read more

Lines of defense: Fargo planning sandbag distribution around city (Fargo Forum)

Piliavin, J.A. (2008). Long-term benefits of habitual helping: Doing well by doing good. In B.A. Sullivan, M. Snyder, & J.L. Sullivan (Eds.), Cooperation: The political psychology of effective human interaction (pp. 241-258). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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