Why Overly Kind People Are Sometimes Annoying
Have you ever met someone who is incredibly kind and morally upright, and yet also deeply insufferable?
They go out of their way to help or participate in important and useful activities that benefit their friends and the community at large. However, they seem overly pleased with their good deeds, and for no good reason to think so, you suspect that there is something calculated in their altruism.
You may find it uncomfortable to see yourself with such an uncharitable attitude towards people who are just trying to make the world a better place.
However, this skepticism is a known behavior, described by psychologists as “repeal of the benefactors”. And while the phenomenon may seem totally irrational, there are some compelling evolutionary reasons to be wary of unrequited altruism.
With an understanding of our innate suspicion of overt acts of kindness, we can identify the specific situations in which generosity is welcome and when it is resented, with some important lessons for our own behavior.
No good deed goes unpunished
One of the earliest and most systematic analyzes of the do-gooder derogation comes from a global study by Simon Gächter, Professor of Psychology at the University of Nottingham, UK.
Like many studies of altruism, his experiment took the form of a “public goods game”.
The participants were divided into groups of four and each person received tokens representing a small sum of money.
They were then given the chance to contribute part of that income to a common fund each round of the game. Once everyone had placed their investment, each person would receive 40% of the total sum invested by the group.
If the participants play fairly, each round should provide a reasonable return on investment for everyone. The stingiest, however, can cheat the system by investing too little and reaping the rewards of others’ investments.
It is easy to see how they can resentment. After 10 rounds, the researchers gave the participants the option to penalize other players by deducting part of the income they received.
According to classical economic theory, one would expect the tightwads to receive such punishments, and they did.
However, surprisingly, the most altruistic participants were also punished, even though they were contributing more than their fair share to the wealth of others.
The finding has been replicated in many other experiments.
In a similar public goods game, for example, participants were asked if they would like to expel members of their group. Remarkably, they expelled the extreme altruists as well as the worst opportunists.
Somehow selfishness and selflessness were considered morally equivalent.
Surprisingly, this tendency seems to emerge early in life: around the age of 8.
And while the size of the effect may vary by context, it appears to be present to some degree in most cultures, suggesting that it may be a universal trend.
reciprocity and reputation
To understand the origins of this seemingly irrational behavior, we must first consider how human altruism arose.
According to evolutionary psychology, innate human behaviors should have evolved to improve our survival and our ability to pass on our genes to another generation.
In the case of altruism, acts of generosity could help us foster good relationships within the group that, over time, help build social capital and status.
“Getting a good reputation can bring benefits like taking a more central position in the social network,” says Nichola Raihani, Professor of Evolution and Behavior at University College London and author of The Social Instinct(“The Social Instinct”).
This could mean more help for ourselves when we need it. “And it is also related to reproductive success”.
However, it is important to note that reputation is “positional”: if one person goes up, the others fall.
This can create a strong sense of competition, which means that we are always on the alert for other people to overtake us, even if they are achieving their status through altruism.
We will be especially resentful if we think the other person was only seeking these reputational benefits, rather than acting out of a genuine interest in others, as it may suggest a cunning and manipulative personality in general.
All of this means that altruistic behavior can cause us to walk a metaphorical tightrope.
We need to perfectly balance our generosity, so that we are seen as cooperative and good, without arousing the suspicion that we are acting solely for status.
This is what the reports of the public goods games seemed to show.
“When you ask teammates why they want to exclude someone, they often give ‘positional’ answers like, ‘Oh, that guy, no one is doing what he’s doing, he makes us all look bad.'”
Studies of social networks, the expert explains, show that people tend to be less impressed by an altruistic act if the person announces the event on Facebook, for example, than if they had kept it to themselves.
Raihani’s own investigation of fundraising websites found evidence that some people are aware of the potential for a hostile reaction to their generosity.
Analyzing the posts on BMyCharity, he found that it is often the biggest donors (as well as the lowest givers) who choose remain anonymous.
They seem to know that a conspicuous act could result in resentment from other people who visit the page, so they prefer to hide it.
Yale University graduate student Ryan Carlson agrees that altruistic behaviors are often evaluated from multiple angles, in addition to the generosity of the act itself.
“We don’t just value altruism, we value integrity and honesty, which are other signs of our moral character,” he says. An apparent act of generosity that appears to be driven by self-interest could therefore lead us to score quite poorly on those other qualities.
For a recent study, he presented participants with several vignettes and asked them to rate the character’s perceived altruism, where -5 was extremely selfish and +5 was extremely altruistic.
In general, the participants did not care if the characters in the vignettes received accidental benefits of their actions.
If the character went to donate blood, a modestly altruistic act, and happened to impress his friend, for example, the participants still viewed him positively.
Similarly, if the character received a gift card for a problem, the participants did not care, since it was an accidental bonus.
The sanction came if they were told that those benefits had been part of the original motive. This changed the perceived altruism scores from positive to negative. Although they were undoubtedly still doing a good deed, they were considered selfish.
As Raihani points out, we are constantly trying to guess the reasons for others’ actions, and punish people harshly when we suspect their motives are impure.
Those instinctive suspicions may or may not be true, of course. We often base our judgments on intuition, rather than hard facts.
rules for life
These findings are worth remembering whenever we find ourselves questioning the behavior of the people around us.
If there is no good evidence to suggest that their acts of generosity are selfish, we may choose to give them the benefit of the doubt, knowing that our uncharitable intuitions may be fueled by our own fears of losing status.
The research could also help us avoid accidental mistakes when we act altruistically.
At a minimum, it shows that you should avoid noisily spreading your good deeds. “And if people mention them, you have to downplay them,” says Raihani.
Even if you think you’re simply sharing some encouraging news about a cause you care about, you should err on the side of modesty.
And if it turns out that you benefit from an altruistic act, it is better be honest about the fact.
Imagine, for example, that a perfectly innocent act of kindness at the office garners the attention of a manager, who then proposes you for a promotion.
Others may view it more favorably if you acknowledge that outcome, rather than allowing them to ponder the idea that you had somehow planned it in advance.
“If we get some benefit from an act of kindness, it makes sense to be transparent,” says Carlson.
Otherwise, it can seem like you’re deliberately managing your reputation to gain status.
Ultimately, the only surefire way to avoid do-gooders’ repeal may be to do your best deeds in complete secret.
And if others discover the truth, despite your attempts to hide it, the good reputation that follows is simply an advantage.
Oscar Wilde said it best more than a century ago: “The nicest feeling in the world is to do a good deed anonymously and have someone find out.”
By David Robinson, science writer and author from London, UK. His next book, “The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life,” will be published by Canongate and Henry Holt in early 2022. You can find him as @d_a_robson on Twitter.