The Altruistic Advantage

By Alex Dixon | September 1, 2008 | 0 comments

If character is what we do when no one’s watching, a new study suggests that only some of us truly have enough character to be labeled altruists. What’s more, altruism may bring unexpected rewards down the line.

In the study, published in the June issue of Social Psychology Quarterly, researchers first gave participants a survey to assess whether they were an “egoist” or an “altruist.” The researchers define egoists as people who only give to others when they expect a reward for their generosity, or where giving won’t hurt them. Altruists, on the other hand, give because they want to help others, even at a cost to themselves.

Next, the researchers gave the participants $8, telling them they could keep all of it or give some away to another participant. Before they made their decision, they were also told it would be kept private. No one would know how much they chose to give or keep.

Then came a second round. This time, participants were told a third party would learn how much of their $8 they shared. What’s more, the third party was going to give some money to the participants in a subsequent round. This created an incentive for the participants to establish a reputation for being generous, in the hope that their generosity would be reciprocated.

The results showed that, on average, egoists gave away 46 percent of their money when they thought the third party was watching them, but they gave only 22 percent in private. Altruists gave away 51 percent in the public situation and 40 percent in the private situation—almost twice as much as the egoists.

The findings suggest some generosity, or “prosocial” behavior, may be motivated by pure altruism, not self-interest. It also raises the question of whether altruists lose a competitive edge in the real world, since they’re less strategic about how and when they’re kind to others.

But another dimension to the study suggests altruists may ultimately gain from giving more. In a final stage, the researchers asked the participants to give money to a person who had demonstrated generosity while playing a similar game. Some participants were told this person knew his generosity would be reported to the participants. Others were told this person didn’t know that anyone would learn of his generosity.

The altruists gave almost the same amount of money to the person in either case. But the egoists gave substantially less to the person when they had reason to believe that person was only trying to boost his reputation. They seemed to reward true altruistic behavior, even if they weren’t altruists themselves.

“If private prosocial acts are found out—as they often are—altruists will receive more rewards than would egoists,” says Brent Simpson, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina and the study’s lead author. “Similarly, to the extent that people punish others who fail to act prosocially, altruists do not bear the costs of being punished when ostensibly private acts become public.”

Tracker Pixel for Entry
 
 
 
About The Author

Alex Dixon is a Greater Good editorial assistant.

  

Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

Donate
 
  
 
blog comments powered by Disqus
 

Most...

  
  

Greater Good Events

The Greater Good Gratitude Summit
Craneway Conference Center, Richmond, CA OR Live Webcast
June 7, 2014


The Greater Good Gratitude Summit

A day of science, stories, and inspiration, featuring a keynote by Jack Kornfield and Brother David Steindl-Rast. CE credit hours available.


» ALL EVENTS
 
 

Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!

» TAKE A QUIZ
 

Dr. Christine Carter's blog on the science of raising happy kids.

» READ MORE
 

Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.

Watch
 

Greater Good Resources

 
 
» MORE STUDIES
 
 
» MORE ORGS
 

Book of the Week

Making Grateful Kids By Jeffrey Froh and Giacomo Bono Two experts explain how to foster gratitude in children, drawing on new research and compelling real-life stories.

» READ MORE
 
Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.

Sponsors

The Quality of Life Foundation logo Special thanks to

The Quality of Life Foundation for its support of the Greater Good Science Center

 
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement