Optimal hammering time

Last month I watched Home, a documentary about a charity offering homes to poor people (maybe just poor single mothers?) at a significant discount.  It focuses specifically on one woman who applied for help and the case worker assigned to her.   Watching it, I was struck by how much the case worker defined her goal as getting this woman this house, rather than helping her, or giving the house to the person to whom it would do the most good.   I thought it was a case of cargo cult, another friend described it as a cultural fixation on helping the poor by making them middle class rather than making being poor bearable.  Either way, it seemed to me like an example of misapplied charity.

Last week I started training to volunteer for a crisis hotline.  One of the things they drill into us is that most callers have a lot of problems we can’t solve.  We have very few tools:  occasionally we make referrals if they have certain  specific issues (e.g.  we’ll offer LGBTQ kids the number for the Trevor Project, or suggest they call 211 to get referrals to programs that could help their material problems), but mostly we listen.  That is what we do.  We are to apply that one tool as best we can.  If it helps, great.  If not, we end the conversation anyway.  There’s a weird tension between “Anything is a crisis if it feels like one to you.  We’re here to listen to anyone, any time, for any reason.”  and “Some people are just black holes, cut them off after 45 minutes.  But they can call back tomorrow.”

The only way I can justify this is by thinking “We have one tool.  It’s impossible to know if this tool is what this person needs.  Even when it is, there are diminishing returns to using the tool.  After 45 minutes, the marginal returns to further use are 0.  Therefore, treating everyone as receptive at minute 0 and no one as receptive at minute 45 is the optimal use of our time.”

I still think the case worker in the movie was pushing her tool too hard, and not listening when the person she was nominally trying to help brought up very reasonable concerns.  But I’m a lot more sympathetic to the myopia now.