The fact that you can’t might be even more significant than generally supposed, as this new paper shows (pdf).
The authors got subjects to play a simple dictator game, in which people were asked to split $10 between themselves and a partner. They found that when the dictator and the partner were not allowed to communicate with each other, dictators handed over an average of $1.53.
However, when subjects could communicate, things changed.
When the dictator was asked to provide an explanation to his partner for his decision, the average donation fell to 60 cents. But when his decision was preceded by a request from his partner, he gave an average of $2.40. And when there was two-way communication, donations were above $2.50.
Communication triggers increased altruism.
This chimes in with a point made by Robert Cialdini in Influence. He tells the story of a woman trying to jump a queue to use a photocopier in a university library. The simple request to jump in elicited 60% compliance. Not bad. But the question “May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” got a 93% compliance rate, even though no extra meaningful information was given. People, says Cialdini, like to have reasons for what they do. Even basic communication generates such reasons - a request gives us a reason to donate, but the opportunity to explain gives us a means of justifying our selfishness.
All of which brings me to where I started. The world’s poorest do not communicate with us, which causes us to give less to them than we otherwise would. By contrast, we are bombarded with messages from the well-off, which - on its own - tends to dispose us to be altruistic towards them.
In this sense, inequality perpetuates itself.