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Is “bad altruism” better than no altruism?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In some cases, people may help others out of true empathy; in others, they may just want to avoid the discomfort of not helping. Image courtesy of normalityrelief via Flickr.

The question you ask—when do acts of charity produce “slacking” later on?—connects nicely with a classic debate about altruism.  Dan Batson is a strong partisan for one side of this debate, but describes both sides well in a classic paper.  On the one hand, people might truly care about the welfare of others: a state Batson calls empathy (though that word means different things to different people, which we can discuss another time).  If your actions reflect empathy, then one good deed shouldn’t produce later laziness; your motive to help should remain as long as help is needed.  On the other hand, people might use altruism instrumentally as a means to more personal ends.  In that case, their helping should be flimsier, collapsing under many circumstances.   Consider someone on her way to work who passes a homeless person.  This commuter may feel empathy and give in an effort to help the homeless person, or she may simply feel uncomfortable, and give in an effort to reduce her distress.  Importantly, in the second of these cases, a selfish action—like avoiding the homeless person altogether—serves the same purpose of reducing discomfort.  A little known study from the 70s bears out this “geometry of avoidance.”  Experimenters set up a donation booth on a university campus and measured how close to it people walked.  Students walked relatively closely to the booth if it was unmanned, but walked in a larger circle (maintaining their distance) if someone was at the booth to ask for help, and an even larger circle if the person sitting at the booth was handicapped.  Presumably these circles traced students’ unwillingness to put themselves in a situation where failing to give would be uncomfortable.

This leads me to another, closely related question: should we care about the reasons behind people’s altruism, or just care that they act altruistically?  A student of mine recently presented some work on “competitive altruism:” a simple but compelling idea.  In essence, it describes cases in which people act altruistically not out of empathy, but as a way to display their largesse—both material and psychological.  You and I know that Larry David covered this topic better than anyone, but lots of psychologists have thought about it too.  For instance, a recent study demonstrated that people who are made to desire high social status buy more “green” products, presumably as a form of social display.

In many cases, people might act altruistically for petty reasons, such as getting credit from others. Does this make those actions less helpful? Photo courtesy of Tobias Witherspoon via Flickr

Competitive altruism is pretty petty, and we might not count it as moral behavior at all.  But it can still benefit people.  The person who gives $1,000 to a charity in order to be listed as a “gold donor” has still helped people with his money.  In fact, he’s helped exactly as much as the person who gives the same amount out of true empathy.  So should charitable organizations or individuals designing policy care about the intention, or just the act?  This strikes me as paralleling some religious debates, where some faiths (Catholicism come to mind) care only about one’s good deeds, whereas others (lots of Protestant denominations) care about one’s intent.  So, I put it to you: if you had a choice between widespread altruism supported by petty psychological causes, or much less altruism, all of which was “genuine,” which would you pick?

 

Jamil Zaki About the Author: Jamil Zaki is an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, studying the cognitive and neural bases of social cognition and behavior. Follow on Twitter @jazzmule.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. marclevesque 7:19 pm 04/18/2013

    First, thanks for the link to the study “Conflict and avoidance in the helping situation.”, and to the Larry David video!

    “So, I put it to you: if you had a choice between widespread altruism supported by petty psychological causes, or much less altruism, all of which was “genuine,” which would you pick?”

    Both, : )

    But really, though I doubt empathy can by dichotomized that way, if I must pick I’ll pick “genuine” empathy because …

    “The person who gives $1,000 to a charity in order to be listed as a “gold donor” has still helped people with his money. In fact, he’s helped exactly as much as the person who gives the same amount out of true empathy.”

    Helped “exactly” as much ? But what about what each of those individuals is indirectly or directly transmitting to others about how we should view and deal with certain kinds of problems in society.

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  2. 2. Cramer 9:36 pm 04/26/2013

    Jamil Zaki,

    Can you provide a reference to anything that supports or suggests that Catholicism “cares only about one’s good deeds” and is not concerned about intent.

    Intent is the only thing that matters. Catholics are even taught that is a sin to even think about committing a sin.

    The Catholic Gospel on Ash Wednesday, February 13, 2013, was entirely about competitive altruism not being good. It begins: “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.’”

    http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/021313.cfm

    [For what it worth: I am an atheist, so your disinformation did not hurt me personally.]

    Link to this
  3. 3. Cramer 9:41 pm 04/26/2013

    Bad altruism is NOT better than no altruism. Bad altruism can be thought to be not much different than bribery. Al Capone gave to the community to get support from the community; he used to get standing ovations at Cubs games. Terrorist groups do the same thing. Robber barons engage in anti-competitive exploitative business practice and start a philanthropic organization to help the exploited people.

    Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. “Bad altruism” is giving a man a fish so he be in your debt for a lifetime.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Cramer 9:54 pm 04/26/2013

    It is simple economics. What exploitative/criminal behavior is being overlooked because people believe a person to be altruistic?

    Correction on last post: “Bad altruism” is giving a man a fish so that he is in your debt for a lifetime.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Cramer 10:05 pm 04/26/2013

    Here’s the entire Catholic Gospel:

    Gospel Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

    Jesus said to his disciples:
    “Take care not to perform righteous deeds
    in order that people may see them;
    otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
    When you give alms,
    do not blow a trumpet before you,
    as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others.
    Amen, I say to you,
    they have received their reward.
    But when you give alms,
    do not let your left hand know what your right is doing,
    so that your almsgiving may be secret.
    And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

    “When you pray,
    do not be like the hypocrites,
    who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners
    so that others may see them.
    Amen, I say to you,
    they have received their reward.
    But when you pray, go to your inner room,
    close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.
    And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

    “When you fast,
    do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.
    They neglect their appearance,
    so that they may appear to others to be fasting.
    Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
    But when you fast,
    anoint your head and wash your face,
    so that you may not appear to be fasting,
    except to your Father who is hidden.
    And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

    Link to this
  6. 6. casrose 6:06 pm 04/29/2013

    “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. “Bad altruism” is giving a man a fish so he is in your debt for a lifetime.” Cramer

    This is a good way to put it !!!
    Religion of any kind has messed people up with giving.
    As they do it out of chore.. They have to.. Not from heart.

    Catholic religion only exists to make people feel guilty !! The Gospel goes in one ear and out to most as they are only there to look good !! They are not holy in real life. The correct studies would show this clearly

    I am a behavioral social scientist on aging.. So many studies can be done show the truth of algorithm’s of people’s actual real behaviors. Not he said, she said as no one is honest today. 10-200 white lies a person will speak a day !! (“I read a statistic that people lie (including “white lies”), on average, 10-200 times a day. I also read that people say, on average, 2500 words a day. http://www.jamesaltucher.com/ )

    If more people gave from the heart.. We would not have the sadness and disparity we have today. Giving from the heart or compassion, empathy of feeling is the pebble in a pond.. radiating out… It makes the giver feel good they are really helping others. Many seeds have to be planted as most people are stone cold in denial today.

    It is all about Energy and there are very tiny few of us really giving from the heart. People are guarded today. We NEED safety in this world now.. as this is base of Maslow Hierarchy of the human to become actualized except we have no safety.

    The whole Idea of philanthropy today is just a way for people too live with their sins. It is the trade off for not living in truth in first place. If people really cared about one another.. we would be living in “community of humans” not with lives of walls as controlled by phantom terrorist.

    It is this lack of being present in real time that keeps our world ineffective not reaching it’s goals etc.. As no one really cares. Altruism is used as way to LOOK GOOD but It is a 100% I gave at the office when it comes to them personally being involved with Love, time, compassion etc..

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