Charitable explanation

Is anyone really altruistic? The usual cynical explanations for seemingly altruistic behavior are that it makes one feel good, it makes one look good, and it brings other rewards later. These factors are usually present, but how much do they contribute to motivation?

One way to tell if it’s all about altruism is to invite charity that explicitly won’t benefit anyone. Curious economists asked their guinea pigs for donations to a variety of causes, warning them:

“The amount contributed by the proctor to your selected charity WILL be reduced by however much you pass to your selected charity. Your selected charity will receive neither more nor less than $10.”

Many participants chipped in nonetheless:

We find that participants, on average, donated 20% of their endowments and that approximately 57% of the participants made a donation.

This is compared to giving an average of 30-49% in experiments where donating benefited the cause, but it is of course possible that knowing you are helping offers more of a warm glow. It looks like at least half of giving isn’t altruistic at all, unless the participants were interested in the wellbeing of the experimenters’ funds.

The opportunity to be observed by others also influences how much we donate, and we are duly rewarded with reputation:

Here we demonstrate that more subjects were willing to give assistance to unfamiliar people in need if they could make their charity offers in the presence of their group mates than in a situation where the offers remained concealed from others. In return, those who were willing to participate in a particular charitable activity received significantly higher scores than others on scales measuring sympathy and trustworthiness.

This doesn’t tell us whether real altruism exists though. Maybe there are just a few truly altruistic deeds out there? What would a credibly altruistic act look like?

Fortunately for cute children desirous of socially admirable help, much charity is not driven by altruism (picture: Laura Lartigue)

Fortunately for cute children desirous of socially admirable help, much charity is not driven by altruism (picture: Laura Lartigue)

If an act made the doer feel bad, look bad to others, and endure material cost, while helping someone else, we would probably be satisfied that it was altruistic. For instance if a person killed their much loved grandmother to steal her money to donate to a charity they believed would increase the birth rate somewhere far away, at much risk to themselves, it would seem to escape the usual criticisms. And there is no way you would want to be friends with them.

So why would anyone tell you if they had good evidence they had been altruistic? The more credible evidence should look particularly bad. And if they were keen to tell you about it anyway, you would have to wonder whether it was for show after all. This makes it hard for an altruist to credibly inform anyone that they were altruistic. On the other hand the non-altruistic should be looking for any excuse to publicize their good deeds. This means the good deeds you hear about should be very biased toward the non-altruistic. Even if altruism were all over the place it should be hard to find. But it’s not, is it?

15 responses to “Charitable explanation

  1. I can imagine that there is a signaling war going on between detection of altruism and fake signaling of altruism. I would be interested in hearing more about the evolution of altruism, faking altruism and detecting the fakers; any good books/papers on this?

  2. As you’ve pointed out before, engaging in altruism because it makes you feel good to help others is really as close as you’re going to get to altruism in the real world. You’re right that it will be very rare for people to help others when they feel bad about it, not least because most use their ‘warm glow’ to figure out if what they’re doing is ‘good’ nor not. Surely you also agree it’s unsurprising that our warm glow stimulators come from activities that would have helped us get along with our local communities; there’s little evolutionary benefit to helping people you’ll never meet. The only benefit evolution would program us to get from that is signalling compassion and willingness to sacrifice for others, which is of naturally what we do.

    A more practical use of ‘altruistic’ is a person more willing to sacrifice their own hedonistic pleasure for the warm glow and signalling benefits from making others better off.

    I have started to eat meat a bit despite not liking it out of a strange sort of altruism (see Meat is Moral by Robin Hanson). But I don’t do it very much, so I guess I’m not very altruistic.

    For the uninitiated you might want to explain why increasing birth rates is desirable.

    • Well I don’t believe myself on that one. I think it is the closest you will commonly get, but I suspect some are more altruistic sometimes. Yes, surely I agree the situation is unsurprising (in retrospect – I think I would’ve had trouble predicting life, let alone bits of it feeling differential ‘warm glows’ in response to the prospect of sending virtual currency around a planet).

      As an example of my point, as you tell about your meat eating, I think you at least partly do it because saying you eat meat to be altruistic makes for amusing conversation. If you never mentioned it *you* may be relatively convinced that you are pretty altruistic, but you can’t share that info easily.

      The uninitiated,
      Increasing birth rates is good because being alive is very complimentary with other things we like.

    • “A more practical use of ‘altruistic’ is a person more willing to sacrifice their own hedonistic pleasure for the warm glow and signalling benefits from making others better off.”

      This is still unnecessarily cynical. A person can feel sympathetic horror at the situation of someone else and act to relieve the horror. No warm glow or signalling involved.

  3. “This makes it hard for an altruist to credibly inform anyone that they were altruistic. On the other hand the non-altruistic should be looking for any excuse to publicize their good deeds.”

    If you wanted to signal ‘I do good things even when nobody sees’ the signal is more credible the less likely anyone was to find out about the act. This of course would means the person would be more willing to put effort into those ‘hard to see’ acts in the hope someone will uncover them anyway and be very impressed. This makes acts at all levels of inconspicuous roughly equally valuable for signalling the above (to a risk neutral agent).

    However, I don’t think people are trying to signal that very much. They are happy to signal ‘I do good things when people are watching’ because most of the time their associates have to rely on them to do good, there will be people who would find out. And if nobody would ordinarily see and an associate cared about the outcome, you could always threaten to tell others about it to ‘twist their arm’ into doing good. The mere fact that they are willing to invest in seeming good makes them more reliable.

    • I think you miss my point – I’m talking about an altruist who by defn isn’t that concerned about whether anyone hears about whatever they did, not someone who wants to signal that they are not signaling. A real altruist would have trouble casually, cheaply, happening to tell you later if you asked that they have ever been altruistic.

  4. “If an act made the doer feel bad, look bad to others, and endure material cost, while helping someone else”

    Atheist suicide bombers? Not sure if they feel bad though because they might be helping friends and family. Fundamentalist nationalist fighters, although arguably they benefit from having a loyal in-group.

    We could set up situations where people think they are in the above criteria, but actually we are watching fairly easily I think. For example, have someone beg a person opposed to euthanasia to kill them and risk going to jail. A bit of a morbid experiment, perhaps.

  5. Sorry for missing the main point of this post last night. If we were willing to spy intently ona large and random sample of people we could get an impression of how many ‘secret and depraved’ acts of goodness they do.

    I think the main problem would be working out how much you were excluding altruistic acts that the person would have performed had they felt bad about it and had to sacrifice, but by luck they felt good about and found it enjoyable.

  6. This reminds me of all the celebrities who throw lavish parties for charitable events. It is more about exposure and PR than a true sense of giving but they probably don’t realize it.
    Nothing defines altruism better for me than one of my favorite poems titled “Weakness.”

    “Old mare whose eyes
    are like cracked marbles,
    drools blood in her mash,
    shivers in her jute blanket.

    My father hates weakness worse than hail;
    in the morning
    without haste
    he will shoot her in the ear, once,
    shovel her under in the north pasture.

    leaving the stables
    he stands his lantern on an overturned water pail,
    cursing her for a bad bargain,
    and spreads his coat
    carefully over her sick shoulders.”
    -Alden Nowlan

  7. I understand that it’s off your main focus, but I’m with Robert – I don’t care much whether you’re a genuine altruist or whether you’re signalling “I do good things when people are watching”.
    Genuine altruism seems unlikely to be often practically differentiated in either the ancestral environment or ours (because important acts are usually visible to others).

    • I agree that fake altruism is just fine as long as it gets it’s kicks from the right behaviors. I think it doesn’t though – what we have makes us care about the cost to us rather than the help to others often for instance, which leads to inefficiency, and it makes us focus on problems for certain people more than others, and ignore problems that are an absence of something good rather than an active harm to somebody who will be grateful. It also makes us focus on visible actions, which often means a bias toward inefficient ‘personal actions’ rather than system changes. It makes behavior change slow regardless of beliefs: an action can’t become the right or wrong thing to do over night, because what’s moral depends largely on what everyone else is doing if the point is to be seen to be good.

  8. I wonder why we should be so eager to prove to ourselves that we are “true” altruists. Would others really want to associate with us more in that case?

  9. Interesting experiment! It indeed seems probable that most helping behavior is not at all as altruistically motivated as people claim it to be. However, probably there are also some altruistic acts.

    What is your conception of a “truly altruistic deed” more precisely? Is it an act where we have uncontestable evidence of altruism, an act which is partly motivated by altruism or an act which is only motivated by altruism?

    In moral psychology/philosophy psychological (as opposed to biological or normative) altruism is usually defined as the thesis that at least some ultimate (non-derived) desires are other-regarding. Thus altruism would exist if at
    least some acts are partly motivated by such desires.

    C.D. Batson and his associates has conducted experiments in social psychology for 25 years, trying to answer the question if there exists any altruism or not. Consistently the evidence has favored their empathy-altruism hypothesis against many egoistic hypotheses (for instance: aversive-arousal reduction hypothesis, high and low empathy groups, empathy-specific punishment hypothesis, social-administered empathy-specific punishment hypothesis, empathy-specific reward hypothesis) In addition to giving some evidence for the existence of altruism these experiments also give us a hint about how much altruism contribute to motivation.

    These experiments are a bit complicated, and I recommend reading for instance Batson or Stich et al’s summary of them.

    Basically, their methodology has been to experimentally induce empathy in one group of test subjects (the high empathy group) and compare their helping behavior to that of a test group (low empathy). For instance, when testing the hypothesis that people help primarily to avoid emotional distress (the aversive-arousal reduction hypothesis) against the empathy-altruistic hypothesis they had the subjects watch “another student”, Elaine, get electric shocks. They were then offered to take her place, since she claimed to be extremely sensitive to electric shocks due to events in her childhood. In one test condition they could instead leave if they wanted to but in the other they would have to watch Elaine get 8 more shocks. The idea is that the egoistic hypothesis would predict that both low and high empathy groups would be a lot less likely to take her place when they had an easy escape option. But, favoring the empathy-altruism hypothesis, only the low empathy group was less likely to take her place in the easy-escape condition.

    Batson’s conclusion:

    Sherlock Holmes stated: When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. If we apply Holmes’s dictum to our attempt to answer the altruism question, then I believe we must, tentatively, accept the truth of the empathy-altruism hypothesis. It is impossible for any of the three major egoistic explanations of the empathy-helping relationship or any combination of these to account for the evidence reviewed (Batson 1991, The Altruistic Question, 174).

    A shorter summary of their work:
    C. Daniel Batson & Laura L. Shaw (1991). Evidence for Altruism: Toward a Pluralism of Prosocial Motives. Psychological Inquiry 2 (2):107-122.

    A good summary of the debate in philosophy, moral psychology and social psychology about egoism vs altruism:
    Stephen Stich, John M. Doris & Erica Roedder (forthcoming). Altruism. In Moral Psychology Research Group (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Moral Psychology. Oxford University Press

  10. “feel bad, look bad to others, and endure material cost, while helping someone else”

    Sounds like paying taxes.

    However, I think that this is a mistake about what altruism *means*. The word, simply put, means that helping others feels good to you, not that you help others if it feels bad.

  11. If we lived in a world where people were only nice to each other because it gave them orgasms or a twenty-dollar-bill teleported into their pockets with every good deed, that would be just fine, because we would live in a better world. Being concerned with the motivations for what we otherwise call altruism is only useful insofar as it predicts future actions.

    But this is an old debate, as witnessed by Kant rolling in his grave after my previous statement. So the really interesting question is, why are we humans usually so concerned with motivations, relative to our concern with outcomes? Why are we so consistently fussy about what goes on inside the skull to get the more measurable result? Now THAT’s interesting.

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