A Final Thought on Charity

One of Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s closing thoughts in their chapter about charity in The Elephant in the Brain reads, “The forms of charity that are most effective at helping others aren’t the most effective at helping donors signal their good traits. And when push comes to shove, donors will often choose to help themselves.”


We human beings are not that great at being altruistic. We are social creatures, and we know that what we do is always being judged by our social tribe in a complex context. It is not just about what we do, but who we are, what kind of people we want to associate with, how we choose to use our time and resources, and what we try to do in the world. Charity, and any altruistic behavior we engage in, fits into this larger narrative about the person we are or try to be.


We cannot separate our charitable behavior from our individual self-interest or from the larger context of our live. As a result, charity is something that we use as a signaling mechanism. It is often about helping others, but it is just as often about telling people something about ourselves. This is where Simler and Hanson’s quote comes from.


We can use our charity to primarily do good in the world, or we can get the benefits of doing good while primarily showing people how generous we are. We can use our money and extra time to do something meaningful for others that also benefits us with social rewards and accolades, however, the personal benefit from charitable behaviors can be so great that it can take over and become the driving force behind our decisions.


This certainly doesn’t happen for everyone and doesn’t apply in every situation, but for a bulk of our charitable behaviors it is a factor at play. It is important to recognize so that we understand what is pushing us to make our donations, and to reshape those pressures so that we use our charitability in the best way to really make the world a better place. We should also acknowledge it so that we can encourage others to do something generous and to help others receive a positive social reward, but only if their charity is also the most effective that it can be.

Marginal Charity – An Opportunity for Big Business

Big businesses strive for efficiency. If something can be reduced, eliminated, streamlined, and automated then at some point it will be. Each tiny advantage can be huge at scale, and can mean the difference between growing and laying off employees. Flaunting success, hiding failure, and maximizing at the margins are standard business operating procedures, but they create a void that could be filled for companies to do meaningful things that can be viewed in a charitable light. In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler talk about “marginal charity” an idea that you can do something that economically doesn’t add much cost to your own life, only marginally diminishes your efficiency, but provides a big element of charity to the business you are already doing.


In the book, the authors consider a high rise apartment building. Say 10 floors is the height to shoot for in order to achieve maximum efficiency. There may be situations where adding one more floor would not increase the cost by a significant amount, but would reduce the efficiency that the building owners and property developers expect from the complex, especially if the final floor was developed to allow for more low-income/affordable housing. Adding this extra story doesn’t make sense in a pure efficiency model, but if you are trying to add a touch of charity to the business you are already engaged in as the developer, you can do a lot of good by providing many additional affordable housing units with little marginal cost to yourself.


Hanson and Simler write, “In terms of providing value to others, marginal charity is extremely efficient. It does a substantial amount of good for others at very little cost to oneself. (In other words, it has an incredible ROD [Return on Donation]).” Finding a way to add a little extra while taking away from your own individual efficiency may make the entire system a bit more equitable, and a bit more efficient as a whole. Small tweaks to how to do things and create the systems that shape our lives can help provide for greater long-term benefit even if they slightly limit what is possible for us now.


Since we are not all property developers, we won’t all have this type of chance to make a big difference through small actions in a business context. But we can think about marginal charity in our own lives and try to set up systems and structures that help us default toward charitable behavior. I don’t think this looks like donating a dollar to the thing the grocery store check-out system asks you to donate to (I’d recommend saving that money and making a single larger donation to a charity featured on GiveWell), but it may look like picking up bottles or trash along the street you already walk down every day. It may look like increasing your recurring donation by an additional $5. It may look like making personal choices that add a little extra cost, but reduce energy use, plastic use, or single use item consumption. We can think about charity on a marginal level, encourage others to do so, and that will help build a spirit of looking for those marginal charity wins. They may not change the world, but they might help set up a culture and system that will.

On Charity, Evolution, and Potential Blind Spots

“Spontaneous generosity may not be the most effective way to improve human welfare on a global scale, but it’s effective where our ancestors needed it to be: at finding mates and building a strong network of allies.” Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson include this quote in their book The Elephant in the Brain when looking at our typical behaviors for donating money and the excuses we have for making donations. Our behaviors don’t always match the expectations we might have if we were donating money for the reasons we claimed to be donating.


At its base, the argument is that making donations is about impressing others to increase our own status and make it more likely that we will attract a mate and pass along our genetic information. The main thesis of the book is that we deceive ourselves with the reasons for our actions, and actually act in much more self-interested ways than we would like to admit, so that we can have a better chance of finding a mate and continuing our genetic line.


Like charitable giving, where sometimes we really do make donations to help the world, the stated reasons for doing what we do are sometimes legitimate and accurate, but often times they don’t account for the whole story. We claim to make donations to improve the world, but we often just make small donations impulsively when people are watching. We want to impress them with our generosity and resources, and we want to raise our social status and attract a mate.


If there is one thing that I would say I am most likely to be wrong about, it is the extent to which I believe our tribal ancestry shaped our evolution (especially our cognitive evolution). I look at most things and consider how they made sense and how they may have originated in small tribal groups. This seems to work well when considering charity, but I may be overly reliant on this explanation and miss other factors. For now, however, with backing from research presented in books like The Elephant in the Brain, self-interested behavior emerging from small tribal groups will be the basis from which my theories of human behavior and interaction begin.

Well Known Charities

Another interesting consideration about charitable giving addressed in The Elephant in the Brain has  to do with which charities we chose to donate large sums of money to. If part of our charitable donations is intended to impress other people and show them how generous and caring we are, then we want to make sure everyone understands how good our donation is.


As an example, I have an automatic recurring donation set up with the Against Malaria Foundation. If I wanted to tell someone about the charitable donations that I do and convince them that what I was doing was meaningful, I would have to convey to them what exactly malaria is, what the foundation does, and why it is effective. Just saying that I donate to the Against Malaria Foundation may not resonate with people the way that me telling them that I was donating to the Children’s Leukemia Support Network would. Malaria is not common in the United States and most people probably don’t understand how debilitating yet preventable it can be. Many people in the United States have heard, however, about Leukemia and probably know it is a type of cancer. Many people also probably have experience in their families of cancer (of one form or another), and know how devastating it can be. Attaching our donations to a terrible disease that people have experience with and trying to support a population such as children is a much easier sell in some regards than convincing people to donate to a charity aimed at malaria which impacts people living far away.


Simler and Hanson write, “Original research generates private information about which charities are worthy, but in order to signal how prosocial we are, we need to donate to charities that are publicly known to be worthy.” This leads us to donate to the Children’s Leukemia Support Network, even though the charity’s entire existence is a scam, rather than the Against Malaria Foundation which GiveWell identifies as one of the most effective charities.


The important thing is that we don’t really do much background with our donations and set out primarily to make big donations to well known charities that tackle things that we think we, or people close to us, might face directly. We want to feel a warm glow about our donations, and we want people to see our donations and immediately recognize what a positive difference we are making. Smaller but more effective charities that address less well known causes are left behind in favor of the bigger more well known charities, even if we could have a bigger impact on the world by making a donation to the smaller charity that people don’t immediately recognize.