From Petrified Forests to Poor People

One of the golden rules of blogging, is that you should have just one clear message per post.

Watch in awe as I break the norm and boldly ignore that piece of advice.

I’m unashamedly going to combine two points in a single post – but you’re all such smart people, you’ll be fine (golden rule number two – flatter your readers).

Let’s begin in Arizona’s Petrified Forest.

A natural wonder of the world, Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park contains the remains of a forest, stunningly fossilised and preserved from 225 million years ago. The park is hugely popular and visited by over half a million people a year, the problem is that many of them decide to take just a small reminder of their visit home with them – resulting in 14 tons of fossilised wood fragments being removed from the park every year by visitors !

Needless to say, worried by this rapid erosion, the management quickly put up signs to deter visitors from taking fragments: “Your heritage is being vandalised every day by theft losses of petrified wood, amounting to 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time”.

The results weren’t quite what they hoped for . . . losses went up significantly !

By suggesting the idea of stealing wood fragments to visitors, indicating that everyone else was doing it, and also raising the prospect that, if you wanted a wood fragment you better get one quick before they’re all gone, the signs were a Triple Fail !

Bottom line – people knew it was wrong, but when they thought everyone else was doing it, they did it anyway.

This is an example of  a perceived ‘social norm‘ trumping a moral or ethical belief. The evidence shows that we’re all far more likely to be influenced by the behaviour of others around us, than we are by our own moral or ethical code. We’re a social animal and it’s not surprising we like to fit in, rather than stand out.

With the help of Robert Cialdini, a psychologist at Arizona University, the park were able to design new signs highlighting that though the vast majority of visitors treated the park with respect, a small minority were damaging it for everyone else. These were much more successful – turns out we don’t like to feel bad about ourselves by doing something we know (or think) most of our peers would disapprove of.

Which brings us on to my second point = the fight against poverty.

We know there are a lot of poor people in the world, whether in far off countries, or down the road.

We may be aware there are around a billion people living on less than $1.25 a day. That 800 million people go to bed hungry each night. That 50,000 people a day die from poverty related causes. These facts can seem very abstract when we see them printed on a screen, can’t they.

If you regularly read Next Starfish I’m sure you likely share my strong desire to combat poverty and tackle the various inequalities and injustices in the world. You probably share my ethical and moral perspective that ‘something must be done’.

But the chances are also most likely, that you’re probably living a fairly comfortable life yourself – food, clean water, warm home, healthcare, education, new mobile phone and all the rest. The odds are that you’re also surrounded by friends, colleagues, neighbours, relatives who are similarly living fairly comfortable lives . . . for many of us, this is our ‘norm’.

If both the above are true, but you’re still currently giving most of your spare money away to tackle poverty and injustice across the world, then you’re acting 100% in alignment with your ethical and moral principles, and, just between you and me, you’re quite a remarkable person.

If like the rest of us you give a little of your spare money, and then sit wringing your hands about poverty, before going off to buy a new car, iphone or expensive pair of shoes, then it might just be you’ve been influenced by the ‘norm’ of living in a (relatively) affluent society and having (relatively) affluent friends to compare yourself against.

This isn’t meant to be a guilt-trip. Just an observation that we all tend to judge and compare ourselves, our lives and our behaviour, with reference to what we see around us. I don’t think we should feel bad about this – norms are normal after all.

But there are two things I’d suggest.

If, both individually and as a society, we were more familiar with the lives of the poor, then ‘normal’ would begin to shift , perhaps we’d begin to appreciate what we have a little more, want a little less, and maybe be a bit more generous with our wealth as a result.

Secondly, we should also realise we’re part of someone else’s ‘norm’. Maybe if we visibly changed our behaviour, perhaps by being personally more generous towards the poor, giving where possible, or supporting aid policies etc, those around us might feel just a little more inclined to do some of the same things themselves.

With that in mind, I’ve linked to a few powerful short films illustrating the lives of the poor around the world (both far and near) below.

Why not help shape your friends and colleague’s ‘norms’ by sharing some with them.


Photo by PetrifiedForestNPS via Flickr

Similar articles – Saving LivesIt’s Not the Thought that CountsCharity Does Begin at Home, You are the Future of Philanthropy


  1. Bill Linton says:

    I visited the Petrified Forest National Park in 1980. They were actually selling bits of petrified tree then – I’ve got one on a shelf a few feet away. Sorry for starting a trend, but at least I did it legally!

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