Why Do We Give

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A year or so ago, my husband and I were walking home and we heard this homeless guy telling everyone who passed that he was hungry. He wasn’t actually asking for money, he was just telling people he was hungry and asking if they could help.

I seldom carry cash anymore, but I could use my credit card to help end this guy’s hunger.

So, I found a pizza place that was open and I bought the guy a small pizza and a bottle of water.

Was he happy or grateful? He was not. He wanted money, not pizza.

And it got me thinking. Why do people give?

I turned to psychology – well, Psychology Today, actually. And a psychologist there wrote about the four kinds of altruism that we humans have developed.

The first is nepotism altruism. That’s the kind of altruism you do for those in your family. It’s apparently not just because you love your family, but because you are biologically invested in having your genetic material make it long-term, and your family is made up of your genetic material.

So, according to that theory, I don’t love my daughter for her own sake, I love her because she carries on the family gene pool.

Now, I know people who have adopted and they would give their lives for those kids, DNA or not, so I’m not sure about that theory.

The second kind of altruism is reciprocal altruism. You know, the standard you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours. This kind of altruism means you will sacrifice in the short term because you know there’s a longer-term payoff. I guess you could say Machiavelli had this kind of altruism, because it all sounds very calculating to me. It’s Mob altruism. Very much like, “I’ll vote for you, but don’t forget who your friends are when that legislation comes up.”

The third kind of altruism is the good you do for the sake of the group. War movies are full of this stuff…the guy who throws himself on a grenade so his platoon can survive. I would imagine that Congressional legislation would fall under this, if we had anyone in Congress willing to give anything up for the greater good. I wonder about this kind of altruism. As we become more tribal in this country, and our tribes get smaller, I wonder whether this kind of altruism is going to become extinct.

The final kind of altruism is moral altruism. That’s the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have the do unto you. And, according to this psychologist, people have a certain view of themselves and if they violate it, they experience a kind of dissonance that’s uncomfortable. The article says that this last kind of altruism is uniquely human, by the way.

I don’t know about that. On a really bad day, is the sympathy and kindness I feel from my two dogs just some kind of transaction for them? Is it a feed-me-and-I’ll-be-good-to-you kind of doggy altruism? Or is it the other way around? If they aren’t sweet to me, they fear that I’ll stop feeding them?

And wouldn’t that be another kind of altruism? The kind that is fear-based? The kind that says that people won’t be good to each other unless you hang a death penalty over their heads?

Let me get back to my homeless guy.

Why do we give?

Is it fear, or is it a bribe to the fates so you don’t wind up like that homeless guy, or is it helping us define ourselves to ourselves as good people, so we can sleep at night?

giving

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