What Counts As Altruism? People Judge Good Acts Harshly When They Are Performed For Selfish Ends

People judge an ostensibly prosocial act, like raising money in a charity run, as less altruistic than neutral acts, if it’s done to feel good or impress others (or for other selfish motives)

By guest blogger Rhiannon Willmot

Philosophers have long debated what constitutes genuine altruism. Some have argued that any acts, no matter however charitable, that benefit both the actor as well as the recipient, are altruistically “impure”, and thus can’t qualify as genuinely selfless. For example, volunteering at a soup kitchen would no longer be considered altruistic if we received a hot meal in return for our efforts. 

However, other scholars have argued that the act remains altruistic if the benefits of prosocial behaviour are an unintended consequence. From this perspective, if the meal is unexpected, our actions are still deemed selfless. 

For their recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Ryan Carlson and Jamil Zaki have shed light on these questions by investigating what the general population thinks of different prosocial acts, depending on their motives and consequences. 

Understanding popular perceptions of prosocial behavior can not only help resolve the altruism debate, but also provide information about how our behaviour might be viewed by others, and whether our personal opinions on selflessness match up with the general belief. For example, why might we perceive the supposedly altruistic behaviour of a public figure differently to our friends, and is social media really the right place to publicise prosocial acts?

The researchers first asked 270 participants on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website to rate how altruistic they perceived behaviours in eight hypothetical scenarios. Participants in one group received only a description of the scenario (“Jane gives blood at a local clinic”), whereas participants in two other groups were also informed about what motivated the act (“Jane gives blood in order to impress her friends”), or about the consequences for the actors (“Jane gives blood, and impresses her friends”). 

Participants told about the actor’s motives were influenced dramatically by what they read. They condemned behaviours driven by material or social gain as actively selfish, and even acting altruistically as a way to derive emotional benefit (for instance, to feel good) they viewed as significantly less altruistic than purely other-oriented activity. This suggests we discredit individuals who anticipate some kind of reward as a result of their prosocial behaviour, and that we are particularly harsh when this relates to receiving material gifts, or impressing others.

Hearing about consequences made less difference to participants’ judgments. However, they did rate behaviours that reaped material or social gain as slightly less altruistic than behaviours that obtained emotional rewards. 

One of the most interesting results was that participants rated the same prosocial act as equally altruistic whether they were told explicitly that it had been carried out purely to help others or they were not given any information about motives. This contradicts the idea that people are naturally sceptical, and actually suggests we are likely to assume prosocial behaviour is carried out selflessly by default.

In a second study, Carlson and Zaki repeated their original experiment with more participants, and introduced a fourth group to investigate the role of neutral actions, such as going to the cinema. The results of study 1 were replicated, however Carlson and Zaki also found that if a prosocial action (that benefited others) was performed for material or social benefit then it was actually seen as less altruistic than neutral actions (that didn’t benefit others). 

Together, these findings suggest the precise motive for an act, rather than its consequence, is the main factor in determining whether we perceive the act as altruistic or not. This effect is so powerful in fact that it can lead us to define certain types of prosocial behaviour as less altruistic than actions which provide no benefits to others at all. 

Why does this perception exist? Carlson and Zaki conclude that our social judgments are influenced more by what drives people to act than the consequences they receive. This is because we use perceived motives to predict future behaviour. Those who are only prosocial under certain conditions are less reliable, and performing outwardly selfless acts for selfish reasons might even represent a deceptive and dangerous character. 

The results of the current work leave several avenues for further research. For example, it would be interesting to discover how judgements of altruism differ in populations who value the relative importance of intentions and consequences differently from the average perception, such as those with autism. 

For now these recent findings suggest that if you promote your charitable efforts on twitter, you could be viewed as less altruistic than someone who isn’t involved with prosocial behaviour at all. Ultimately, this comes down to whether we are viewed as seeking social glory, versus recruiting others to join a charitable cause. Whilst it seems humans take altruistic acts at face value when given no context, it is the appearance of our motive for acting that is key. 

Good deeds gone bad: Lay theories of altruism and selfishness

Post written by Rhiannon Willmot (@rhi_willmot) for BPS Research Digest. Rhi is a psychologist with an interest in wellbeing, and as a keen runner has also explored how topics such as resilience can enhance athletic and academic performance. Rhi has published internationally, and has also contributed to a number of transdisciplinary programmes, including an initiative to reduce food waste via altering perceptions of “ugly” fruit and vegetables, and a project to enhance quality of life in deprived areas of Mexico.