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.”

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Alex Dixon is a Greater Good editorial assistant.


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