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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