People hate generosity as much as they hate mean-spiritedness
SELFISHNESS is not a good way to win friends and influence people. But selflessness, too, is repellent. That, at least, is the conclusion of a study by Craig Parks of Washington State University and Asako Stone, of the Desert Research Institute in Nevada. Dr Parks and Dr Stone describe, in the latest edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, how and why the goody two-shoes of this world annoy everyone else to distraction.
In the first of their experiments they asked the participants—undergraduate psychology students—to play a game over a computer network with four other students. In fact, these others (identified only by colours, in a manner reminiscent of the original version of the film, “The Taking of Pelham 123”) were actually played by a computer program.
Participants, both real and virtual, were given ten points in each round of the game. They could keep these, or put some or all of them into a kitty. The incentive for putting points in the kitty was that their value was thus doubled. The participant was then allowed to withdraw up to a quarter of the points contributed by the other four into his own personal bank, while the other four “players” did likewise. The incentive to take less than a quarter was that when the game ended, after a number of rounds unknown to the participants, a bonus would be given to each player if the kitty exceeded a certain threshold, also unspecified. When the game was over the points were converted into lottery tickets for meals.
The trick was that three of the four fake players contributed reasonably to the kitty and took only a fair share, while the fourth did not. Sometimes this maverick behaved greedily, because the experiment had been designed to study the expected ostracism of cheats. As a control, though, the maverick was sometimes programmed to behave in an unusually generous way.
After the game was over, the participants were asked which of the other players they would be willing to have another round with. As the researchers expected, they were unwilling to play again with the selfish. Dr Parks and Dr Stone did not, however, expect the other result—that participants were equally unwilling to carry on with the selfless.
Follow-up versions of the study showed that this antipathy was not because of a sense that the selfless person was incompetent or unpredictable—two kinds of people psychologists know are disliked in this sort of game. So the researchers organised a fourth experiment. This time, once the game was over, they asked the participants a series of questions designed to elucidate their attitudes to the selfless “player”.
Most of the responses fell into two categories: “If you give a lot, you should use a lot,” and “He makes us all look bad.” In other words, people were valuing their own reputations in the eyes of the other players as much as the practical gain from the game, and felt that in comparison with the selfless individual they were being found wanting. Too much virtue was thus seen as a vice. Perhaps that explains why so many saints end up as martyrs. They are simply too irritating.
Full article: http://www.economist.com/node/16843817