Limited kindness is unappreciated

If you have not yet interacted with a person, you are judged neutrally by them. If you do something for them once, then you move up in their eyes. If you continue to benefit them you can move further up. If you stop you move to well below zero; you have actually slighted them. Even if you slow down a bit you can go into negative territory. This goes for many things humans offer each other from tea to sex. Why is limited attention worse than none?

One guess is that it’s an upshot of tit-for-tat. If I am nice to someone, they are nice to me in return, as obliged. Then I am obliged. Mentioning that the interaction has occurred an even number of times doesn’t get you off the hook; you  always owe more friendly deeds.

Another potential reason is that when you haven’t interacted with someone they still have high hopes you will be a good person to know, whereas when you know them and cease to give them attention, you are demonstrably not. This doesn’t seem right, as strangers usually remain strangers, and people who have had an interest often return to it.

Perhaps un-friendliness is a punishment to encourage your future cooperation? People who have been useful in the past are a better target than others because they are presumably already close to being friendly again. If I’m wondering whether to phone you or not and I think you will be miffed if I haven’t it may push me over the line, whereas if we haven’t met and I think you might be miffed when we eventually do, I probably won’t bother because I probably will never meet you or want to anyway.

For whatever reason, this must reduce the occurrence of friendly behavior enourmously. Before you interact with someone you must ascertain that they are likely enough to be good enough for long enough that it’s worth the cost of their badmouthing or teary appeals to stay if you ever decide they’re not.  This certainly limits my own friendliness  – often I wouldn’t mind being helpful to strangers, but I’ve learned the annoying way how easy it is to become an obligated ‘friend’ just because you can’t bear to watch someone suffer on a single occasion. So other people prevent me from benefiting them with their implicit threat of obligation.

Interestingly, one situation where humans are nice to one another and not further obliged is when they trade fairly at the outset, such as in shops. This supports the tit-for-tat theory.

11 responses to “Limited kindness is unappreciated

  1. I knew my second marriage was far superior to my first when I realized I wasn’t counting what we did for each other.

  2. I don’t think this is terribly mysterious. Many people do not want friendly help, but rather they want friends — people who actually want to associate with them and view paying them attention as a benefit, not a cost. From that perspective, seemingly friendly altruists are simply a dishonest menace.

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  6. receiving help seems very personal. Maybe that’s why we have welfare state that’s handing out help. We need a middle man, because if we help someone directly they expect more.

    I think a lot of help-professionals have something interesting to say on this subject, and about their experiences with those who they have helped. And this phenomenon is the reason for the ” I was just doing my job” responses, not modesty.

    The obligation that helping comes with, is the premise of very very many movies.

  7. What about people who simply take advantage of that other person’s generosity?

    Also, this doesn’t take into account bigotry of all sorts (here, I call bigotry “dislike that stems from petty personal dislike based on distaste of a non-harmful trait, as opposed to dislike based the rational thought process (namely on traits and actions truly damaging or degrading to others)”.

    While I agree with your overall point, that point holds only in cases where no bigotry or exploitative tendencies exist for either party.

  8. > If you do something for them once, then you move up in their eyes.

    Is this true? You can move down in someone’s eyes by doing something nice for them, if it makes them think you have lower status/value. Offering to do something nice often makes people more suspicious of you than before, especially if you’re a man offering to do something for another man.

    • It’s surprising how many people don’t realize that friendliness can signal that, or don’t want to realize that.

      I was recently talking with some people about a game,, that involves doing nice things for people you know.

      Someone mentioned that this could even be used with random strangers, and I noted that due to the various signals that doing kind things for people gives off that this wouldn’t work and people would probably be very suspicious of such kindness. I received a surprising amount of push-back on that from the people I was talking with, with many saying that only anti-social people would view kindness as anything other then positive.

  9. Endowment effects and status quo bias may play a role here as well. And if you repeatedly help someone, they may include the expectation into their planning, which can then be frustrated if you don’t meet the expectation.

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