HowTo: Altruism and the “Warm Glow” effect

Being that ’tis the season and all. I’ll put Indigenous health outcomes work aside for the moment. Wait. Those two weren’t related.

Also, this really should be properly referenced, but odds are that I won’t bother.

Why do we ‘give’? Where does altruism come from? We’ve certainly had the Smithian perspective punched into our brains since before we learned to love Billy Bragg (not you? Oh):

man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens. Even a beggar does not depend upon it entirely. The charity of well-disposed people, indeed, supplies him with the whole fund of his subsistence. But though this principle ultimately provides him with all the necessaries of life which he has occasion for, it neither does nor can provide him with them as he has occasion for them. The greater part of his occasional wants are supplied in the same manner as those of other people, by treaty, by barter, and by purchase. With the money which one man gives him he purchases food. The old cloaths which another bestows upon him he exchanges for other old cloaths which suit him better, or for lodging, or for food, or for money, with which he can buy either food, cloaths, or lodging, as he has occasion.

Adam Smith manages the issue reasonably well. The trouble is our interpretation of benevolence. People do things out of self-interest, by which law most altruism is irrational. Some is not: giving to charity in times of national (or other crises) are self-interested in a social capital, fabric-of-society kind of way. It can preserve markets, prevent the spread of disease, etc. When a mining company builds a hospital in South Africa it is not benevolence, per se, but an attempt to keep its workforce healthy enough to work.

Some altruism – a lot of altruism – however, does not qualify thus. It is just … irrational. How is it in my self-interest, then, to keep dollars in my pockets, when I’m in the city, to give to people who ask for them? I’m not religious – there is no theological trope guiding my Samaritanism (although the morality is functionally the same – something that will come up later) – I get nothing from it.

In fact this is not the case. I could experience the “warm glow effect” each time – that is, the warm glow of having done something nice for my fellow person (or animal, or tree – I’m a freakin’ hippy, after all). The same effect has been attributed to the receipt of gifts (i.e. why do we feel gratitude for things we don’t want? Because it’s the thought that counts, not the practical utility generated by the good or service given). The warm glow effect is/can be why we donate to charity, or give blood, or pay a quarter for lemonade that you just know is going to taste way too sour and, paradoxically, way too sweet. I say it can be why we act charitably: the warm glow may be merely the effect of the act, but what happens if it also becomes the motivation for the act? If we pursue the warm glow effect, of course, we are no longer altruistic.

Caveat. I’ll insert, here, early work into ‘impure altruism’. Suppose a hat was passed and you saw every one of your peers give – would you? Of course, whether you felt like it or not. That is impure altruism: no warm glow, just the avoidance of cold stares and an empty feeling inside as your peers think you’re a dick. Jon Elster described it as not an absence of self-interest, but a need to be perceived to be motivated by something other than self-interest.

So interesting is this problem, in fact, that Elsevier has dedicated an entire of their Handbooks series to it: The Handbook on the Economics of Giving, Reciprocity and Altruism. We can use Jon Elster’s contibution to build upon the understanding started with Smith. He demonstrates, in this chapter, that many things can mimic altruism.

Interest can mimic altruism. He argues more generally that prudence can mimic morality (just as my morality, from above, can mimic Samaritanism): (i) we may ‘do the right thing’ because we understand that, ultimately, it is in our interests (giving blood, donating to hurricane relief); (ii) we may ‘do the right thing’ because in a social exchange of kindnesses, more kindnesses may flow back to us (Kolm’s reciprocity. Any Corporation pursuing goodwill is an example).

An extension of part (i) is pursued in Ythier’s chapter from the same handbook: the economic theory of gift-giving. In certain social constructs, the interdependence of utilities will mean that altruism is, again, hard to pick: I will do things for my wife, as a rule. Do I do these things because my welfare loss (of, say, mere money) is compensated for by the welfare gain I experience from the gain in my wife’s welfare? Elster calls this “other-regarding self-interest” – it is not altruism. Do I do these things even though I suffer a net welfare loss? That would be altruism. Do I do these things without regard for my net welfare at all? That is also altruism. Here’s a final kick: do I do these things because I just don’t think about such things, all that much? That’s not altruism. Per se: I do such things for many people. And animals, and trees, etc. My guess is that I have a little difference engine hard-wired into my brain that says, if someone needs something, they will probably benefit from the resource more than me, so I give it up. I don’t even get that much of a warm glow. I just don’t think that much about it. Is being a soft touch altruism?

Passion can mimic altruism. This too is impure altruism. From Elster’s chapter:

The desire to be well thought of by others, independently of their capacity to confer material rewards or punishments, can be a powerful mechanism for mimicking motives that one does not really feel. Equally strong, perhaps stronger, is the desire not to be badly thought of. These desires are linked to the emotions of pride and shame that guide a large part of human behavior.

In what he calls the transmutation of motivations, Elster identifies the question of altruism: is it possible and knowable? So many motivations can produce acts that are attributable to altruism, and often precisely because they will generate that conflation:

Let me conclude by reconsidering the person who drops money into the collection box of an empty church. What might his motivation be? One possibility is that he is trying to buy salvation. Various theologians tell us that this aim is unattainable, since salvation is essentially a byproduct of actions undertaken for other reasons [Elster (1983b, Chapter II)]. Yet many believers have tried to attain it, some by donating money and others by choosing martyrdom. Another possibility is that he is trying to gratify the inner audience, not only by his donation but by the apparently virtuous choice of a place for giving where he cannot be observed. A third possibility is that he wants to help others in need, that the collection box was simply a convenient vehicle for the donation, and that he would have chosen it even had others been present to observe him. Until the day scientists can conduct brain scans at a distance, we shall not know.

So, in the end, I have tricked you. There is no “How To” of altruism. It either is, or it isn’t, and you will almost never truly be able to infer whether or not it was. Sure, when you observe someone (maybe me) give a bum 2 dollars, it could be. You might, however, be seeing a guy trying to impress a girl. You might be seeing a guy hoping to get into heaven (not understanding that that isn’t how it works – if heaven is his motiviation. At least as far as I understand it). If you see someone give money to a pan-handler on the train, it might be altruism. It might be a guy trying to impress the rest of the train. It might be a guy trying to not be scorned by the others on the train. It might be a guy trying to get the pan-handler the hell out of his carriage. It might be a guy who’s son ran away, who gives money away in the hopes that it makes some karmic difference. None of these are altruism, and you’ll never pick those people apart from the guy who does it because he genuinely wants the pan-handler to have a better day than yesterday.

In general what you observe is, sadly (or not – remember: whatever the motivation, if the act is the same, with the same outcome, who cares? Beggars cannot be choosers. If I have a church to build, do I really have the time to care about why a person is donating the money?), not altruism. Politicians, corporate goodwill, Big Oil and their ‘green’ agendas. You name it, I can cynic it into not making you smile anymore. And I’m probably right. Cynicism is a natural reaction that we have to people mis-representing their motivations, and we do this because there is a hierarchicy of motivations in society – and their has been since the Ancient Greeks. If you do something out of Pride, but pretend that it is Altruism, it is because Altruism is noble. Cynicism is just the way that we try to filter bullshit.

During the course of my Eco 1 class, our textbook contains a discussion of the Tsunami from 2 years ago. At the time, Americans (for example – it’s an American text, after all) gave for days. The generosity was tremendous. The result? For the subsequent year, American and other charities found that they received less. American households (and, by extension, others) have a budget; they have a sense for the limits of net welfare gain or limited welfare loss that they’re achieving with their charity, and they do not give beyond that.

The key is that altruism is never irrational. Even within the idea of the bounded rationality of people, generally, altruism (pure or impure) is a rational thing, according to the utility functions that you cannot observe. If you’re still interested, I recommend Altruists.org – specifically, their references page. It is naive and optimistic, frankly, but nobody was ever truly the worse for that.

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1 comment so far

  1. […] to believe that you can help lift families out of poverty with your vote, and no doubt the economic “warm-glow effect” is an integral part of many politicians’ reelection strategy. Unfortunately, the data tells a […]


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