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… And He Seems To Know It

Nichola Raihani, is a professor in evolution and behaviour at University College London and author of The Social Instinct. Her research of online fundraising pages has found evidence that some people are aware of the potential for a hostile reaction to their generosity. Analysing posts on BMyCharity, she found it’s often the highest (as well as the lowest) givers who choose to remain anonymous . They seem to know a showy act could result in feelings of resentment from the other people observing the page, and so they’d rather hide it




Given classic economic theory, you might expect the stingy free-riders to receive those punishments – and that was indeed the case. Amazingly, however, the most altruistic participants were also targeted – even though they were contributing more than their fair share to the others’ riches.

Ultimately, the only fool-proof way to avoid do-gooder derogation may be to do your best deeds in complete secret. And if others happen to discover the truth, despite your attempts to hide it – well, the good reputation that follows is simply a bonus.

And if you do happen to gain from an altruistic act, it’s best to be upfront about the fact. Say, for example, that a perfectly innocent act of kindness in the office happened to get the attention of a manager, who then put you forward for promotion. You may be seen more favourably if you acknowl...

If the participants play fairly, each round should provide a reasonable return on investment for each person. Those who are very stingy, however, can game the system by paying very little themselves and reaping the rewards of others’ investments. It’s easy to see how resentments could bui...

Finding yourself taking such an uncharitable attitude towards people who are only trying to make the world a better place might feel uncomfortable. Yet this scepticism is a known behaviour, described by psychologists as “do-gooder derogation”. And while the phenomenon may seem to...

Have you ever come across someone who is incredibly kind and morally upright – and yet also deeply insufferable? They might try to do anything they can to help you or engage in a host of important, useful activities benefiting friends and the wider community. Yet they seem a litt...

These findings are worth remembering whenever we find ourselves questioning the behaviours of the people around us. If there’s no good evidence to suggest that their acts of generosity are self-serving, we may choose to give them the benefit of the doubt, knowing that our uncharitable int...

The research might also help us to avoid accidental faux pas when we act altruistically ourselves. At the very least, the research shows that you should avoid noisily broadcasting your good deeds. “And if people bring them up, you should downplay them,” says Raihani. Even if you think tha...

Like many studies into altruism, Gächter’s experiment took the form of a “public goods game”. The participants were divided into groups of four, and each person was given tokens representing a small sum of money. Participants were then given the possibility of contributing some o...

To understand the origins of this seemingly irrational behaviour, we need to consider how human altruism emerged in the first place.

Ryan Carlson, a graduate student at Yale University, agrees that altruistic behaviours are often appraised from multiple angles besides the generosity of the act itself. “We don’t just value altruism – we value integrity and honesty, which are other signals of our moral character,

All this means that altruistic behaviour can make us walk a metaphorical tightrope. We need to balance our generosity perfectly, so that we are seen as cooperative and good, without arousing the suspicion that we are acting solely for the status.

Importantly, however, reputation is “positional” – if one person rises, the others fall. This can create a strong sense of competition, which means that we’re always alert to the possibility that other people are getting ahead of us, even if they are achieving their statu...

One of the earliest and most systematic examinations of do-gooder derogation comes from a global study by Simon Gächter, a professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham in the UK. 

As Raihani points out, we are constantly trying to second-guess the reasons for others’ actions – and we punish people harshly when we suspect that their motives are impure. Those instinctive suspicions may or may not be true, of course. We often base our judgements on intuition rathe...

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