Why Admire Brags?

A few days ago Rob Wiblin complained about our admiration of anonymous charity:

Even those who are open about their good deeds are likely to hold a special admiration for anyone they discover has been secretly helping others for years. … This norm exists because when you go on about your altruism, … perhaps you made that donation just to be able to show off your virtue and wealth to everyone else. … [But] a culture of ‘private altruism’ has some seriously perverse effects. … We are less inclined to talk about … which causes are most valuable. .. Altruistic acts … will tend to be crowded out by alternatives that are unavoidably conspicuous – impressive cars, holidays, degrees and so forth. … Someone who really cared about helping others … would want to bring up the fact whenever they could get away with it, in order to draw attention to the merits of their cause and prompt others to join in. (more)

Charity has an overt and a covert purpose. The overt purpose is to help those who can’t trade to get the help they need. To understand the covert purpose, let’s review some basics about showing that we care.

Your associates care about how helpful you are to them. Sometimes they can see very clearly how helpful you are. For example, they might see you hold a door open, or answer a direct question. But most of the time their vision is obscured. So they have to look for clues in what they can see, to infer things unseen. For example, if they see you helping a similar associate in a situation where that associate can’t see the help, they might guess that you help them in similar situations where they can’t see. Conversely if they see you make fun of someone not in the room, they might wonder if you do the same to them when they are absent.

If they see you helping someone in need who can’t much help you back, they might guess that you would similarly help them if they were in similar need, but couldn’t help you back. And if they see you helping someone in a situation where you might reasonably guess that no one could see your help, they might think you would help them in a situation where you’d guess no one could see. There is thus a close functional association, and complementarity, between charity, helping people who can’t help you back much, and anonymity, helping when the recipient and others can’t see the help.

Given this complementarity between charity and anonymity, for the purpose of signaling, it makes sense that people recommend giving anonymously, and admire folks who do so. Sure, that may end up less helping distant others in need, but we all know that we don’t care much about that.

Imagine that after one person told another “I love your new dress, it makes you look thin,” you shouted “Liar. I know you don’t like dresses like that, and anyone can see this dress doesn’t maker her look thin.” Do you think either of them would appreciate your comment? They probably both know the speaker exaggerates, but still appreciate the exchange as a signal of friendship and loyalty. You are rudely insulting them both, because they did something they admire.

You’ll seem similarly tone deaf if you point out that charity givers are not giving in ways to maximally benefit recipients. The giver and the audience both admire the gift as a signal of loyalty and caring, which they see as good things, and in addition a third party benefits from the process. Yet there you are complaining that they aren’t doing even more. They can quite reasonably see you as rude, hostile, and ungrateful. Who made you the spokesperson for the recipients of their charity? Don’t you see how white lies smooth the social fabric?

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  • Bathurst7

    I have a friend who does volunteer work.  I point out sometimes that professionals who volunteer could help more people by working an hour of overtime and donating the money … that way the charity could buy *multiple* hours of work.  And, yes, she gets upset at me.

    But, as you say, I do appreciate her more because she volunteers to help others, and for the reasons you say.  I appreciate that she’s someone who feels good helping people … since I’m one of the people who might somehow need help.

    But … then, why does she imply that she’s doing it out of a sense of responsibility, and suggest that I should be doing it too instead of just donating?  That contradicts the original signal.
    Mentioning the volunteering is a strong signal that she’s a compassionate person.  The bragging that it’s her responsibility undermines that — it makes me wonder whether maybe she’s not so compassionate, that she’s doing to *signal* compassion, or to signal other things.  

    In which case, maybe she won’t be helping me at all, when I need it.

    • john

      Just make sure that, when you need something from her, there are witnesses.

  • Robert Wiblin

    Would you forecast that more overt charity would result in more helping of people far away? Or less, or the same?

    • Robin Hanson

      Are we imagining that we hold constant the amount of help you give to people who can’t help you back much, and then increasing the fraction of it that is visible? If so, I don’t see an obvious prediction about changes in the social distance of those you’d help. But maybe I’m missing something.

  • NLeonard

    So, you observe an individual helping others without the others knowledge, and infer from this that they are more likely to help you even when you don’t know whether they’re helping you or not. If the individual knows that you don’t know whether they’re helping you or not, why should they help you and correspondingly why should you expect them to help you? Because they also expect others to be observing their behavior toward you?

    If that’s the case it sounds like this predicts people should tell others when they’re anonymously helping, but that they should keep it a secret from the person they’re helping. And that they should try to tell others about their anonymous helping as much as possible.

    Unless there’s a tradeoff between telling others about your charity and not telling the recipient, like maybe others will indirectly tell the recipient about your charity for some reason so the more you tell others about your charity the greater a chance it will be communicated to the recipient?

  • David Barry

    “Sure, that may end up less helping distant others in need, but we all know that we don’t care much about that.”

    But there are some of us who *do* care about helping distant others in need.  Given that the best charities for this are orders of magnitude more cost-effective at it than the typical charity, you only need a small increase in the number of people donating to those high-impact charities to completely overwhelm any mild negative effects from people who think you’re being rude.

    And I think it’s possible to be polite enough when talking about high-impact charities to reduce the perceived rudeness.  If someone else is talking about their preferred charity, then it’s easy to get them to agree that charity is about helping people (because insofar as donating to charity is a signal, it’s only a good signal if the donations appear to be made altruistically).  From there it’s only a not-too-disagreeable step to suggest that it would be better to help _more_ people per dollar.  I’ve been called callous and cold-hearted for reducing charity to cost-effectiveness statistics, but I’ve never been called rude for it.

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