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My friend Jermont has been hounding me to watch a video from the Princeton Public Lecture Series.  Okay, maybe hounded is too strong a word.  Let’s just say he sent me the link along with a nudge to watch it three times.  As I previously opined, this post is proof that nagging works.

You’d probably guess from the book Freakanomics that Steven Levitt is an engaging and fun speaker.  The fact he talks about his “research” on prostitutes probably doesn’t hurt either.  What really fascinated me was his theory about altruism.  To understand his theory, you first have to have a little economics background, which he lays out in his seminar.  The gist of it goes like this:

  1. For years, researchers had test subjects play the Dictator game.  Basically, one subject is given $10 and told he or she can either keep it or share some of it with the other subject.  Pure economic theory would predict the subjects would protect their own interests and keep all the money.  But, on average, subjects gave somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 to the other subject, leading many economists to believe that people were fundamentally altruistic.  There was much rejoicing.
  2. Levitt approaches one of the researchers performing this kind of work, John List, and notes, “Hey, that’s neat.  But no one has ever come up to  me on the subway and given me $3.  If people are fundamentally altruistic, how can this be?”  List then devises a tweak to the experiment, where subjects can either keep the money, share it, or steal some amount from the other subject.  You wouldn’t think this would fundamentally alter the results of the experiment.  After all, if people are fundamentally altruistic, surely they won’t steal from the other participant, will they? The answer is yes and no.  Those who previously shared their money now gave the other person nothing.  The cheap bastards who didn’t share anything before were apparently now emboldened to actually steal.

Levitt explains these results as a kind of lab artifact.  In the first case, participants are being asked to share with someone watching (and perhaps worse, a clipboard noting responses).  Those who value an altruistic self-image are thus encouraged to share.  In the second case, the range of acceptable behavior is widened by adding the stealing option.  Participants may rationalize that because they aren’t stealing when given the option, giving nothing is pretty good by comparison.  This certainly explains why no one is handing out money to strangers on the subway, but does it satisfactorily explain the person who feeds the meter for a stranger’s car? What about those who risk their life to save others from a horrific traffic accident or burning house?  Is that just people trying to pad their self-image too?

I’m willing to say yes, but not in the negative way Levitt connotes with the words “self-image.”  It sounds selfish, doesn’t it, and isn’t that what economists said before the Dictator game debunk anyway?  But remember we are whoever we make ourselves to be, after all.  We’re all fighting the lizard brain, as Seth Godin reminds us, and some are more effective at it than others.  For all of us, some days are easier than other days.  I know I want to be more altruistic, that I privately beat myself up for not making more time for community service when I am so fortunate to have a stable life and loving family.  Is altruism a part of my self-image?  Gosh, I hope so.

Perhaps the more interesting research is the work being done to understand sacred values, as explained in this Scientific American article:

When people are asked to trade their sacred values for values considered to be secular—what psychologist Philip Tetlock refers to as a “taboo tradeoff”—they exhibit moral outrage, express anger and disgust, become increasingly inflexible in negotiations, and display an insensitivity to a strict cost-benefit analysis of the exchange. What’s more, when people receive monetary offers for relinquishing a sacred value, they display a particularly striking irrationality. Not only are people unwilling to compromise sacred values for money—contrary to classic economic theory’s assumption that financial incentives motivate behavior—but the inclusion of money in an offer produces a backfire effect such that people become even less likely to give up their sacred values compared to when an offer does not include money.

Whether or not they go to church, for some altruism is a sacred value.  What I find hopeful is that society in general seems to be putting more emphasis on community service, perhaps making it more likely to rise to the level of a sacred value initially through peer pressure, which can later become more intrinsic.  This still won’t lead to people handing out money on the subway.  Levitt, who appears to have a great deal of common sense, ought to know that a sense of fairness is likely the cause, not a lack of altruism.  Perhaps Levitt should tweak his own experiment and ask someone for money.  Take, for example, the case of a journalist posing as a panhandler who managed to earn $200 in a single day.

All I know is that doing nice things for other people makes me feel good in turn.  I’m sure Levitt’s prostitute could put a price on that, but it seems unnecessary.  I say let your self-image show, and may it be as beautiful as your epidermis.

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11 Responses to Uh-Oh, Your Self-Image Is Showing

  1. I don’t believe in true altruism; regardless of this particular study above. Look at it like this; if you were to give $1 to charity each day or help an old lady cross the road…you get nothing “tangible” in return, and people view you doing these deeds as ‘altruism’. What people fail to look at is the intangible return you are getting by helping people. Many people’s dopamine receptors become more active when doing something for others. They feel better about themselves. So, when you do something nice for someone else, whether conscious of it or not, you are getting something in return; feeling good about yourself.

    • Absolutely, Jamie. You do get something in return for good deeds, it just isn’t terribly tangible or quantifiable. I completely agree this emotional benefit drives the behavior. But what’s wrong with that? Perhaps the problem is linguistics. Altruism, by definition means an “behavior that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but benefits others.” But what people often mean when they refer to altruism is acts of kindness where the balance of value appears to favor the recipient. A big difference I think. That’s why I was essentially siding with Levitt, agreeing altruism is the result of self-image grooming in a sense, but to also say there’s nothing wrong with that!

  2. “Perhaps the problem is linguistics.”

    This is exactly the problem. None of us seem to be arguing that there isn’t a benefit from acts of altruism. Consequently, this benefit must be tangible and quantifiable in some way. By assigning a word like “benefit” to this feeling from acting altruistic we are recognizing some positive correlation to the feeling even though it’s not precisely measurable. The economist in me would agree with Cam that it is quantifiable in theory, but it’s incredibly difficult to measure these economic terms like utility in reality.


    • Greg,
      I don’t doubt that the emotion can be detected by brain scans, which is why I linked to the sacred values research. That said, a good friend of mine has a wonderful quote from Herb Simon in his signature block, which meant a lot to me as I moved from strict biochemistry to more psychology/sociology. “The true line is not between ‘hard’ natural science and ‘soft’ social sciences, but between precise science limited to highly abstract and simple phenomena in the laboratory and inexact science and technology dealing with complex problems in the real world.” I think that sums it up pretty well.

    • On
    • August 10, 2010 at 12:12 pm
    • Cameron Plommer
    • Said...

    I tend to agree with Jamie. My belief is that people are essentially self-interested individuals, looking out for their own welfare. As Jamie mentions, people may not receive anything tangible from giving to charity, but they are obviously gaining something. If they weren’t gaining anything from that donation they would not give. It’s a simply cost-benefit analysis: that $1 donation (or whatever amount) is worth less than the utility (joy, happiness, pleasure) of giving to a worthy cause. Therefore, people donate. Altruism is just a product of self-interest. In my book, that’s ok.

    • Cam,
      I had to think about this, and here’s what I came up with. I agree that rational individuals primarily look out for their own self interests. But if nonprofits have learned anything, it’s that giving is primarily an emotional response. The way you describe it, it sounds like people are weighing two rational options in their head. “Hmmm…do I want some joy today? Maybe I’ll give to the food bank.” But it doesn’t work that way. I’ll wager many charitable offerings are rather spontaneous and almost always an emotional response that doesn’t really do this cost-benefit analysis you’re suggesting. I may have to go to my decision making expert to see what he thinks. Hang tight…

    • On
    • August 10, 2010 at 8:33 pm
    • D.M. Solis
    • Said...

    Dear Jennifer,

    Some random thoughts springing from you intriguing writeup, directly or peripherally related:

    1) When I taught morality and ethics to sophomores, I did mountains of values clarification with my students. I remember one of the girls coming to this, “It doesn’t matter what we say now. You don’t know what you’ll do until you’re actually IN the situation. It’s fine to SAY you would never save yourself and not your kid if there was a fire, or if you were in a sinking boat and you could only save one of you. But until you’re really in the situation, you don’t know what you’ll do. None of us does. ”

    2) The larger insight these classes inevitably came to was the “mile in her moccasins” conclusion, how we shouldn’t judge others.

    3)The thing about life, her tragedies and her graces, both teach us so much about what we’re really made of. Some say you can gauge a person’s worthiness more by how good a winner he is, than by how good a loser. I wonder if that’s true.

    4) I like the parable about the debtor who begged for mercy and was forgiven his debt by a magnanimous lender– only to turn around and call for lesser debtor, who owed the first one, to be thrown in jail. The original debtor was then rebuked by the wealthy lender and rousted off to debtor’s prison.

    5) A final thought: working at large corporations for some years, I found a peculiar pattern: The higher up the ladder I went, the more generous I found folks to be. The scrapping and backstabbing took place at the lower and middle management tiers. People at the top were almost unanimously very helpful and kind. I realize that may be boring compared with, and a bit anomalous to the “Wallstreet” and “Devil Wears Prada” cliches. Oh well.


    • I have always subscribed to the belief that it is impossible to know precisely what you will do until you find yourself in that situation. There are simply limits to our empathy. Interesting your comment about scrapping and backstabbing taking place primarily at lower and middle management. That hasn’t been my experience at all. There are good managers and bad managers everywhere. The good ones are in such short supply, and the conditions in which we ask them to work so very hard, that it seems to spread them out pretty evenly in my opinion. I’m sure it varies by profession and organization though.

    • On
    • August 11, 2010 at 10:58 pm
    • Brigid
    • Said...

    This is not an easy thing to sum up in a few paragraphs, and that’s why my whole blog is about the topic of giving.

    But I’ll try anyway 😉 If you ask why people are altruistic to a religion professor, a biology professor, an economics professor, a sociology professor, and an art professor, you’ll get seven different answers (the art professor will probably give you two). Each has a framework of thought, and each approaches humanity through their framework. Giving is not something that fits easily into any one academic area (what does?) so any professorial opinion you have is bound to miss out on some stuff.

    Additionally, and this is critical, not all donors act the same either. Just the way not all consumers act the same way. Some donors give in order to gain something concrete, some donors give for self-image, some give to build relationships, some give to build up the human spirit. And a giver will give for one reason with a stranger, another reason with his church, another reason with his spouse. Not only does everyone give for different reasons, each person gives in different scenarios for different reasons, too.

    So, you have academics, who think in a myriad of specific ways, and givers who act in a myriad of specific ways, and of course it’s not going to feel right when one professor says all donors act for one reason according to this one lab test.

    I like economics a lot, but in respect to the topic of giving, it’s not a field that can adequately describe the full range of actions and motivations. To do that you’d have to also include religion, science, and art.

    • Brigid,
      I really appreciate having your perspective here and I thought the explanation of the “spectrum of givers” on your blog was quite interesting. Neat to see it broken out that way.

      I spent the last year working with scientists from a range of disciplines, trying to understand and measure human behavior, and then, if it is ever possible to do so, predict what a person or group of people will do based on some set of criteria. It’s true there are myriad motivations for giving (or any other action), but this doesn’t mean we can’t draw some important correlations. From a philosophical point of view, I think it’s worthwhile to personally try on the theories generated to see how they feel. Not to see if I agree that they are correct in the general sense, but to see what I can learn about myself.

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