Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

The Price of Doing Good

            Here’s a suggestion for all the altruists out there; the noble hearts that devote their lives to end world hunger, expecting nothing in return: you might want to reconsider. If you insist on pursuing your selfless ways you may end up friendless and alone.

            People’s distaste for the selfish is a well established fact of life. We frown upon those who use common resources without ever chipping in; slackers at work irritate us; we look down on people who don’t pay their “fair share” of taxes. But new research reveals a stranger side to our inherent sense of justice: we are also troubled by those who give and give and take nothing in return.

The finding came as a surprise to psychologists Craig Parks of Washington State University and Asako Stone of the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas. Studying whether groups tolerate members that consume a lot of a common good yet contribute little, they had students play repeated rounds of a game in which they were meant to add and subtract points from a general kitty. Points in the collective pot at the end of a round were worth more. But they belonged to everybody.

 As expected, students shunned players who in earlier rounds had taken more than they put in. The surprise was that they were almost equally willing to expel players who consistently contributed more than they took out.

            The finding sits somewhat uncomfortably alongside our belief in our own virtue. It is fine to shun free riders. They abuse the public good. Our distaste for do-gooders, by contrast, probably has a baser motivation: they make us feel bad about ourselves. They may be adding to the sum total of collective wellbeing. Still, we want them off the island because they make us feel that our own contributions are inadequate.

            We have all probably experienced instances of this emotion. It’s the feeling inspired by the kid who consistently brings an apple for the teacher. It’s what we feel when we think of Little Goody Two-Shoes. Maybe Mother Teresa’s neighbors felt this way. But though the emotion may be familiar, it nonetheless changes our understanding of reasonable behavior.

            So are we destined to evolve into absolute egotists? Belief in selfless sacrifice is central to our morality. It’s the only unadulterated good around. Everything else is either bad or profit-seeking, which only economists consider virtuous. The warm glow of goodness is essential to motivate all sorts of pro-social behavior, from blood donations to tipping. Why keep it up when instead of a warm glow our peers give us the cold shoulder?

            I think the Red Cross has nothing to fear. Ultimately, people don’t just contribute to charity to feel good. Giving is also about social pressure.  The reason we want the Goody Two Shoes to leave the neighborhood is because they raise the bar for acceptable behavior, increasing this pressure. But the social norm that considers charity a good thing persists in their absence.

            In other words, giving is OK.  Just don’t do it in excess.

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