Scientific Proof That It’s Better To Give Than To Receive

PsyBlog has a series of articles on how to spend your money wisely, and one of them points out three different studies which showed that people were happier after spending money on others than they were after spending it on themselves. Why? Because giving makes us see ourselves as really good people — after all, if thieves are really bad, then the opposite must be really good. And of course, any religion worth its salt preaches charity like it’s the gospel. So giving is a real boost to one’s self esteem.

Not that it should be, because, ironically, there are real, practical benefits to being altruistic: they strengthen social relationships, which is arguably the most valuable investment one can make. For example, what was the likelihood that Mother Teresa would’ve ended up penniless and in the street? Or that she would’ve had no one to care for her, had she ended up bedridden? About as close to zero as you can get. (She actually was pretty sick before she died and had no problem getting care.) On the other hand, lots of grouchy rich people have to pay someone just to have dinner with them.

Mother Teresa


Marketplace had a segment in 2008 about the economics of gift giving. In it, the author of Predictably Irrational goes through a scenario in which he gets invited to a party and tries to think of an appropriate gift. He decides on a 50$ bottle of wine, but realizes that for a variety of reasons, the bottle is probably worth only 25$ to the party host: maybe he doesn’t like wine, maybe he’d prefer 50$ in DVDs, etc. Therefore, it seems like it would be rational to just give him the 50$ in cash, so he can spend it on whatever he wants; but this seemingly rational behavior would be grossly inappropriate. On the other hand, if he gave the party host a nice gift and the next week he needs help moving, the party host will be more inclined to help because of the gift; if he had gotten cash instead, he would probably expect more cash for his time. The gift is rational after all.

In a great book called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, that author calls the concept underlying all of this “reciprocity“. It’s a fundamental rule that we all learn as children: people who mooch off other people are undesirables. And it’s a very important rule because without it, complex societies would not have developed. While direct reliance on others is now less important due to the rise of the welfare state, we’ve had to rely on other people throughout most of human history, and so we had to be sure they were reliable and vice-versa. Therefore when we are given something, we feel the need to reciprocate lest we be labeled a sponge, whose species tend be ostracized by society and only tolerated by family, where normal economics are mostly non-existent. The exchange of gifts is then a kind of test for more serious situations — a pre-season game of sorts. If the other party reciprocates, it shows they are both valuable to one other and the relationship is strengthened. And if there are a lot of gifts, one or both parties may feel indebted to one other, on top of the closer relationship that has developed in the meantime; meaning that thanks to reciprocity, you now have someone to help you move or babysit or visit you in the hospital… services that not even the Swedish government provides.

So paradoxically, without knowing the intention behind it, giving can be either very altruistic or very selfish — the Schrödinger’s cat of psychology. However, in either case, given the social insurance which gifts buy, you can’t go wrong with giving stuff away. No wonder Jesus and Santa are so popular.

From PsyBlog and Marketplace, via Neatorama

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