Christmas might be the season of goodwill and a time to help the needy, but a new study has found that people are conspicuously more generous in giving when observed by others.
"You see this a lot around the holidays within families and social networks," Robb Willer, author of the study and Professor of Sociology at University of California, Berkeley said.
"Of course we do not want to demystify the season of gift-giving because we all like to pretend the act is absolutely sincere and not self-interested."
"Competitive altruism" is the phrase used by Willer and his partner Pat Barclay of Cornell University for this strategic one-upmanship of beneficence.
The juxtaposition of these terms may seem riddled with contradiction, but Willer disagreed.
"Altruism is defined in evolutionary biology as a behavior that is costly to one individual and beneficial to another," said Willer. "It's not hung up on motivations."
The study, Partner Choice Creates Competitive Altruism in Humans, was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London: Biological Sciences.
The findings signal significant implications for our understanding of human cooperation in everyday life, Willer said.
"People value money and resources, but they also value having a good reputation and are willing to invest in maintaining one," he said.
"We had this feeling that people do this all the time, but no one had ever set up the conditions where you could say 'ahah' this is competitive altruism."
Willer and Barclay conducted their laboratory experiments with 31 women and 23 men paired off with "lab dollars" which they could donate to their partners.
The researchers found that subjects would donate more when the amount would be disclosed to possible future partners, a way to signal generosity.
The incentive to compete in giving comes when choice enters into the equation, said Willer. When subjects were allowed to choose their partners, they were more likely to give above and beyond what they would give to simply signal generosity, entering into the realm of "competitive altruism."
But how do human subjects exchanging phony cash in a cubicle have bearing on the way we relate in everyday life?
"People give more to gain access to a third party," Willer said. "People will be more generous if they know they're being watched. It could be to find a mate. It could be to make friends."
Conspicuous generosity is a feature of competition for social partners, argues the study. Both males and females value generosity, Willer added.
"People want to spotlight their most positive attributes," he said. "In a large party at a restaurant, the person who picks up the check gets the glory."
This research also may shed light on large-scale corporate giving. "The golden age of philanthropy is now," recently announced Peter Singer, an influential US philosopher.
Bill Gates, chief executive of software giant Microsoft and the world's wealthiest man, gave US$30 billion this year towards fighting disease in the developing world. Warren Buffett, the second richest man, made history this year with the largest charitable donation to date — US$31 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
But the beginnings of corporate philanthropy appeared right around the time of the rise of the robber barons, Willer said.
"I'm not suggesting that Gates and Buffett aren't sincere," he said. "But Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie were responding to allegations of selfishness in the face of anti-trust issues."
Though Willer allowed that no real data exists to support that there is a spike in competitive altruism around the holidays, he offered some compelling anecdotal evidence.
"You know how there is always that one family member who really goes overboard and then you essentially give this weird second order gift of not trying to outdo them because it would ruin their Christmas," Willer said.
"Well, that's competitive altruism at work."
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