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Why are people generous? Why aren't they?

April 9, 2009 |  2:31 pm

“The question of why people are motivated to act altruistically has been an important one for centuries,” begins an article in Psychological Science. The authors don’t claim to have solved that little mystery, but they did, at least, find something kind of interesting.

They enrolled 46 students in an experiment with several parts. In one part, the subjects were asked to copy a list of words and think carefully about what each word meant to them, then write a story about themselves in which they used the words.  (They were told it was a “handwriting test,” though one or two of them, we’re sure, might have wondered why Northwestern University’s psych department should be quite so interested in calligraphy.)

Some got neutral words like “book” and “house” to copy.  Some got nice words, such as “caring” and “kind.” Others got mean words like “disloyal” and “selfish.” This drill had been shown, in earlier experiments, to influence how a person felt about themselves.

Next:  Subjects were asked whether they would like to make a small donation to a charity of their choice.
Result? Those who had the mean list of words pledged more money to the charity than those who’d been primed to feel good about themselves.

The conclusion: If you’re feeling pretty darn good about yourself you’re more likely to act shabbily -- hey, you’ve got credits in the bank, you can afford it. But if you’re feeling pretty shabby about yourself to begin with, you need to build up your saintly quotient. Better be nice.

Or, as the authors put it: “We suggest that people aspire to maintain a comfortable self-image. Deviation in either direction ... results in compensatory behavior.”

Why? Well, altruism, they note, is a component of human social behavior.  But it carries a personal cost. You give that last piece of pie to someone else and that means it doesn’t go to you. Human beings, therefore, might be tuned to constantly gauge how they’re morally measuring up, and not lay on the niceness any thicker than it needs to be.

For more on the science of altruism and various scholarly theories scientists have put forth to explain it, go here and here.

-- Rosie Mestel