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Pop Psychology Honors Michael: "They Don't Care About Us"


Today, Pop Psychology features the controversial 1996 song "They Don't Care About Us" as the fourth installment in our five-part series on the King of Pop.  For the full MJ experience, read Part One on "Man in the Mirror,"  Part Two on "Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough" and Part Three on "Black or White."

If Picasso had his Blue Period, then maybe History, with singles like "Scream" and "They Don't Care About Us," represents Jackson's "Angst Period."  Though later tempered by the poignant "You Are Not Alone" and the almost laughable "Earth Song," the first sounds off of History were practically vicious.  In "Scream," Michael and Janet Jackson take aim at the press.  But in "They Don't Care About Us," Michael again turns his attention to global injustice.

"They Don't Care About Us" is a rare Jackson song that did not chart all that well, but this is probably due to circumstances unrelated to the actual musical qualities of the song.  Many claimed that the song was antisemitic, highlighting lyrics such as "Jew me."  Close friend Steven Spielberg even publicly claimed that he found the track to be offensive.  Although Michael denied any intention of antisemitism, he still decided to re-record the offensive lyrics, even after two million copies of History had already been shipped.  Although "Don't Care" was a financial success in Europe, American radio stations were reluctant to give it any airtime.  As a result, the song peaked at a disappointing 30 on the US singles charts.

Controversy aside, "They Don't Care About Us" follows in the footsteps of "Black and White" in attempting to address important social issues, specifically the widespread indifference to global poverty.  Speaking as a citizen of the world and not a global pop icon, Jackson asks, "Am I invisible because you ignore me?" while also claiming that if either Teddy Roosevelt or Martin Luther King were alive, "they wouldn't let this be."  The Spike Lee-directed video is set in one of Rio de Janeiro's infamous favelas, again in an attempt to bring attention to the area's poverty.

But, when you think about it, we should all be wondering why such a song should even exist.  Why do we need pop icons to urge us to give, whether it be in "We are the World," Live 8, or the latest remix of "What's Going On?" I mean, people obviously knew that Brazil, along with many countries, was very, very poor.  Why weren't Americans giving more to such a cause?

Recently, some clever psychologists have studied this idea, and have come to a but of a paradoxical conclusion: it's probably because there is so much widespread poverty in the world that its' more comfortable inhabitants are unwilling to give. One experiment in particular, conducted by Deborah Small, George Lowenstein and Paul Slovic, does an excellent job of highlighting the irrational foundations of making donations.

Participants completed a survey about various technological products, and were given $5 as compensation.  But with this $5 also came a blank envelope and a letter from the charity Save the Children asking for money.  This letter came in three forms.  One form presented only statistical information about starvation in Africa:

Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than three million children.  In Zambia, severe rainfall deficits have resulted in a 42% drop in maize production from 2000. As a result, an estimated three million Zambians face hunger. Four million Angolans—one third of the population— have been forced to flee their homes. More than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance.

The second group received a form that focused on only one victim:

Any money that you donate will go to Rokia, a 7-year-old girl from Mali, Africa. Rokia is desperately poor, and faces a threat of severe hunger or even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed her, provide her with education, as well as basic medical care and hygiene education.

Finally, a third form was used that had both of the above paragraphs placed on the same sheet.  Participants were then asked to make a donation to Save the Children.

The results are somewhat depressing and even counterintuitive.  Participants who only heard about Rokia gave an average of $2.38 and those who only heard about the statistics behind the starvation gave remarkably less, $1.14.  Yet people who read about the statistics and Rokia only gave $1.43.  For these people, any desire to give created by the Rokia story was deflated with the presence of such overwhelming statistics.  So it's not really the case that presenting statistics only motivates people less than a personal story.  If anything, showing statistics makes people want to give less.  Apparently, you'd be better off ditching the stats and just saying "Give us some money."

The authors chalk up their findings to what they call the "identifiable victim effect," explaining that it is only when we can picture the benefactors of our generosity that we will be willing to give.  Such an explanation appears to make sense.  After all, I can imagine Rokia actually doing something with my $2.  But what is $2 for three million people?  Nothing.

So maybe Michael should have taken a lesson from science on "They Don't Care About Us."  A more powerful song would focus less on the bigger picture.  To change minds and open wallets, you've got to make it personal.  As Mother Theresa famously said, ‘‘If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.’’


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