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Is Being Not-Greedy More Important Than Being Generous?

2012 December 19
by Eric Horowitz

Studies show that by the time a child is six-years-old he will have learned an average of 17 aphorisms about the need to be generous. Ok, I made up that last tidbit, but it’s clear that the remnants of the country’s Puritan foundation have stitched a reverence of charity into the American fabric. There’s even an unassailable tax break for charitable contributions. Clearly this is a good thing, but how important is it? Does a person’s generosity influence interactions they’re not involved in? Do people “pay it forward” by responding to generosity with generosity toward a third party. And what about people who aren’t generous? Do people respond to greed with more greed?

A new study (pdf) led by UNC’s Kurt Gray attempted to find an answer. The study was composed of a series of experiments that used a variation of the “dictator game,” which consists of one player receiving some mount of a particular resource (e.g. money) and then deciding how much to keep for himself and how much to give to a second player. Gray’s experiments used either money and labor as the resource. For example, in one experiment participants were given two fun tasks and two boring tasks, and then had to choose which two tasks to pass on to another person. Similar experiments were conducted using money.

The twist in Gray’s experiments is that before allocating their resources participants were told about what another player had chosen to give to them. Participants in the equality condition were given one fun task and one boring task (or $3 out of a possible $6); participants in the greed condition were given two boring tasks (0r $0); participants in the generosity condition were given two fun tasks (or $6.)

The experiments revealed three interesting findings. First, exposure to greed had a stronger influence on future allocations than exposure to generosity. That is, greed made participants most likely to “pay it forward.” Second, there was not a significant difference between the generosity shown by people who were treated with generosity and people who were treated with equality. Regardless how much a participant had benefitted from somebody else’s generosity, people seemed to believe an equal split was sufficient to pay it forward. Finally, Gray and his team found evidence that the propensity to respond to greed with more greed is driven by negative affect. If the initial greed doesn’t lead to an inferior emotional state, the person might not respond with more greed.

What does this mean for society? The researchers speculate that it might be wise to switch our focus from generosity to equality:

From the perspective of the person who is paying-it-forward, the asymmetry between greed and generosity may stem from a misconception of the threshold required for an act to truly reflect paying it forward. The person who awakes to gratefully find his long driveway cleared of snow may feel that he has “paid forward” the generous act by brushing off a bit of snow from a nearby car, but this discount rate is sufficiently high that the perpetuation of good will likely ends there. On the other hand, the person who awakes to find his driveway completely blocked from an errant snowplow may pile all that extra snow onto another car, thereby creating a significantly longer chain of ill will. This asymmetry suggests that to create chains of positive behavior, people should focus less on performing random acts of generosity, and more on treating others equally—while refraining from random acts of greed.

I think taking the focus off generosity would be a mistake. Even if everything the study suggests is 100% true, we should still stress being generous in order to establish strong generosity norms. In other words, we need to try to shift the generosity “overton window.” If the norm is equality, many people will choose to be less generous and act greedy. But if the norm is generosity, many of those who choose to be less generous than norms dictate will still treat others equally. Ideally, stressing equality would lead to less greed because it’s an easier lift, but in reality it’s hard to envision that happening because social norms would move in the wrong direction. Thus the big takeaway from the study is not the importance of equality, but the destructiveness of greed as it incites a chain of paid-forward tit-for-tat greed.

So to answer the question at the top of this post, yes, technically the marginal increase in “goodness” when you stop being greedy (and start treating others equally) is larger than at the point when you start acting generously. Treating people as equals is extremely important. But precisely because it’s so important we need to pretend that being generous is all that matters — that’s the best way to prevent as few people as possible from becoming greedy. Thus for all practical purposes it would be wise to continue to consider being generous more important than being not-greedy.
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Gray, K., Ward, A., & Norton, M. (2012). Paying It Forward: Generalized Reciprocity and the Limits of Generosity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General DOI: 10.1037/a0031047

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34 Responses leave one →
  1. David Nicholls permalink
    December 19, 2012

    I’ve found when I’m generous towards people with less money than me they sometimes actually resent it , maybe it makes them feel inferior, like I’m trying to show I’m better than them, have more surplus, also they CAN’T hope pay me back so escape social debt, friends particularly I think (my tendancy to share is adopted from studying hunters and gathering societies so is somewhat abnormal in the west)

    I’ve definitely noticed when I am generous towards a group I’m in, as a whole, this is shortly followed by an attack from someone politically ambitious in the group. Generosity can be seen as a bid for power or dominance & sometimes is (though probably not as often as the politically ambitious might think).

    I’m facinating with the conclusion that the art of treating people equally is the realistic path, though I expect the findings may be culturally specific.

  2. Kevin Stadler permalink
    December 20, 2012

    I don’t agree with your take on stressing generosity over equality. The important thing is that the ‘generosity norms’ you are talking about are relative. When a society sees a certain high degree of generosity as the norm, people will also perceive greed in any behaviour that is less generous than that norm (even if is is still generous in absolute terms, e.g. sharing more than half of what you’ve got). By pushing the norm anywhere above equality you’re on one hand not only making it more attractive for freeriders, you’re actually increasing the range of behaviours which are interpreted negatively, so you’re expending effort building a system whose dynamics only lead back to equality as the norm.

    Moreover, if you stress generosity over equality you also justify the accumulation of surplus wealth in some individuals, saying that it’s a good thing since they are now able to share their wealth and counter inequality – an inequality that might not have been there in the first place if they hadn’t had a moral incentive to accumulate surplus wealth.

  3. Eric Horowitz permalink*
    December 20, 2012

    Kevin, you make a really good point about the relativity of norms – a point I overlooked in my post — but ultimately I don’t think we would see the large detrimental effect you predict because there tends to be a lot of stickiness and anchoring when it comes to perceptions about equality. That is, even if there is shift in the necessity of more generosity, in practice I don’t think there would be a corresponding shift in the unacceptability of mere equality. I think there’s some support for this in a lot of development research on child perception of equality, and you can also see it in Gray’s experiment. If people felt equality was sufficient for paying forward generosity, it seems likely that they would feel equality was relatively sufficient even in a world where norms dictate a relatively higher level of generosity. In a sense, the salience of equality gives it some immunity to the relativity created by shifting norms. That’s not to say there would be no negative change in perceptions of equality, but I don’t think it would be all that significant.

    As to your second point, I don’t see an emphasis on generosity as permissive of excess wealth. I merely see it as something that relates to how you should approach those less fortunate than you.

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