- Social psychologists have two theories for why we help others: “public benefit” (altruism) & “private benefit” (the giver gets something out of the giving).
- “Private benefit” better explains the high level of giving in the United States.
- The more people “think” about how to give, or why they should give, they’re less likely to give.
- You give simply because it makes you feel good, and — it should.
Social psychologists have long been interested in what they call “helping behavior,” i.e., those actions people take to help others1. We take it for granted that everybody, of course, wants to help others in need, but it turns out a complex, and largely unconscious, set of factors controls our willingness and motivation to help others. Naturally enough, non-profits and charity organizations want to understand these motivating factors, but those of us who see ourselves as a helping individual could also benefit by better understanding this important aspect of ourselves.
Social psychologists have two theories for why we help others2:
- We help because we perceive the benefit of our actions as accruing to others. They called this “public benefit” because the public, or some section of it, benefits (e.g., the homeless population). However, we don’t perceive ourselves as gaining any benefit from helping others; we have altruistic as opposed to personal motives for helping.
- We help others because we see ourselves as benefiting in some way. Social psychologists call this “private benefit.”
It might seem like “public benefit” better accounts for why we give, but it turns out that “private benefit” better accounts for the high level of giving we see, at least in the United States — how high? In 2009, over 90% of the average households in the U.S. donated over $1600 to non-profit and charity organizations, a year that saw the country in one of its deepest post-WWII recessions.
According to social researchers and economists, “private benefit” serves an important function in maintaining the high level of giving that we see; that is, if we only see a benefit of helping going to those we help, people have a tendency to “opt out” of giving and let others help instead. Experiments have shown that a lack of personal motive reduces the tendency to give or help.
Interestingly, research into the motivations of businesses and corporations suggest that profit maximization (a form of ‘private benefit’) is the primary motive driving contributions. Corporations see increased profit through positive advertising and enhanced corporate image (e.g., think of Intel’s support of the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour). In some cases businesses can even calculate the indirect benefit on the bottom line of improved social conditions (e.g., reduced crime in cities, decreased welfare dependency, etc.).
In fact, Peter Navarro3, business professor at the University of California-Irvine, agues that profit maximization is such a strong factor that tax policy should be altered to allow corporations to treat contributions as critical business expenses; this, he thinks, could increase charitable giving above the 20%4of all donations in any given year coming from businesses.
How Do We Benefit From Charitable Giving & Charitable Donations?
Researchers have indentified a couple of ways we benefit from giving. 1) We can get tangible benefits in the form of invites to special events, discounted tickets to theatre shows and museum exhibits, etc. Individuals that donate large amounts can receive recognition (i.e., social prestige) in terms of plaques, statues, or having new research, arts, or educational centers named after them.
2) More often we get non-tangible benefits best described by economist Andreoni in 1990. He found that people experienced a “warm glow”5after helping someone or donating to a cause they believe in. The benefits of helping and giving, however, extend far beyond a momentary “warm glow.” Numerous studies have shown helping brings a surprising number of physical and mental health benefits ranging from reduced stress and depression, better immune system functioning, a greater sense of life satisfaction6 and in the case of corporate volunteering, helping increases employee morale and productivity.
So, “private benefit” lies at the heart of giving and what lies at the heart of “private benefit” is, well – the human heart, Andreoni’s “warm glow.” As surprising as this may be, it has led researchers to an even more surprising conclusion: “thinking” about giving makes us give less. Specifically, thinking in detail about how we “should” give, about how much good our giving will really do, about which charity/cause is really the best, kills the emotional response that led to the impulse to help at all.
Dr. Deborah Small, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, has found that when you start thinking deliberately about how to give, you may wind up giving less than you otherwise might. The same goes if you start thinking hard about a particular social problem or cause. As impossible as it seems, the more you “know,” the less likely you are to give7.
In short, when we try to be “smart” givers and donors, we stop feeling says Daniel Oppenheimer, author of “The Science of Giving”8.
So, Only The Selfish and Stupid Give?
That’s one way to look at it – but the other way is that because giving and helping is of such critical survival value for the human species, nature has created a built-in, highly complex reward system, for giving – and like the human fear response, the impulse to help bypasses, to a surprisingly large extent, our higher critical cognitive functions. In short – it is that important to give and help. But now I’ve probably got you thinking about giving, so just don’t’ think about any of this!
In the end, our heads get in the way of us doing many things that are ultimately good for us and for others. When we engage in “critical thinking” we naturally seem to emphasize the critical part, and this keeps us from acting. Giving, it seems, is ultimately a lot like faith and hope – the heart is smarter than the head in this case.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to be a smart giver – you definitely should, but weigh your ultimate decision making on your first instincts, that first emotional response to help or give and less on exactly how or why you should give. Discount, a bit, the negative thoughts you’re likely to have when you really start thinking about it all. Giving is more like a prayer than a calculation. Trust that you’re doing the right thing and that you’re making the best decision possible.
© 2013, Eva’s Village - One of the Highest Rated Charities in the U.S.
1. Social Psychology – Helping Behavior. SparkNotes Psychology Guide Series.
2. “Why Do People Give,” Lise Vesterlund, in Richard Steinberg and Walter W. Powell eds., The Nonprofit Sector, 2nd edition, Yale Press, 2006
3. “Why Do Corporations Give to Charity,” Peter Navarro, Journal of Business 61.1 (1988): 65-93.
4. U.S. Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstracts.
5. “Impure Altruism and Donations to Public Goods: A Theory of Warm-Glow Giving,” J. Andreoni, Economic Journal 100:464–77.
6. “Surprising health benefits of giving,” Orly Avitzur, Consumer Reports Magazine, December 2011.
7. “Why We Give To Charity,” Leon Neyfakh, The Boston Globe, December 4, 2011.
8. “The Science of Giving: Experimental Approaches to the Study of Charity (The Society for Judgment and Decision Making Series),” D. Oppenheimer, C.Y. Olivola eds., Psychology Press (2010)
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