Goodwill under the microscope

2006-12-24 10:48

San Francisco - Christmas might be the season of goodwill and a time to help the needy, but a new study has found that people are conspicuously more generous in giving when observed by others.

"You see this a lot around the holidays within families and social networks," Robb Willer, author of the study and Professor of Sociology at University of California, Berkeley told AFP.

"Of course we do not want to demystify the season of gift-giving because we all like to pretend the act is absolutely sincere and not self-interested."

"Competitive altruism" is the phrase used by Willer and his partner Pat Barclay of Cornell University for this strategic one-upmanship of beneficence.

The juxtaposition of these terms may seem riddled with contradiction, but Willer disagrees.

"Altruism is defined in evolutionary biology as a behaviour that is costly to one individual and beneficial to another," said Willer. "It's not hung up on motivations."

The study, "Partner Choice Creates Competitive Altruism in Humans", was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London: Biological Sciences.

The findings signal significant implications for our understanding of human co-operation in everyday life, said Willer.

A signal of generosity?

"People value money and resources, but they also value having a good reputation and are willing to invest in maintaining one," said Willer.

"We had this feeling that people do this all the time, but no one had ever set up the conditions where you could say 'ahah' this is competitive altruism."

Willer and Barclay conducted their laboratory experiments with 31 women and 23 men paired off with "lab dollars" which they could donate to their partners.

The researchers found that subjects would donate more when the amount would be disclosed to possible future partners, a way to signal generosity.

But how do human subjects exchanging phoney cash in a cubicle have bearing on the way we relate in everyday life?

"People give more to gain access to a third party," said Willer. "People will be more generous if they know they're being watched. It could be to find a mate. It could be to make friends."

This research also may shed light on large-scale corporate giving. "The golden age of philanthropy is now," recently announced Peter Singer, an influential US philosopher.

Bill Gates, chief executive of software giant Microsoft and the world's wealthiest man, gave $30bn this year towards fighting disease in the developing world. Warren Buffet, the second richest man, made history this year with the largest charitable donation to date - $31bn to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

But the beginnings of corporate philanthropy appeared right around the time of the rise of the robber barons, said Willer.

"I'm not suggesting that Gates and Buffett aren't sincere," he said. "But Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie were responding to allegations of selfishness in the face of anti-trust issues."


Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.