Charitable behavior says something about us. It is a way for us to advertise ourselves to the world in a discrete manner, so that everyone can see us and take away a message without us having to tell each person something about ourselves in a direct manner. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in The Elephant in the Brain, “The most obvious thing we advertise is wealth, or in the case of volunteer work, spare time.”
It seems strange that we would use charity in this way. I hear arguments from time to time that we should just have higher taxes and use government systems and structures to address social problems. As a change to the current system, we could build more government agencies and provide more support for the kinds of programs and functions that we currently ask non-profits and charities to assist with. A frequent argument against this idea is that it would be inefficient and we couldn’t rely on government to consistently address the kinds of problems that charities and non-profits pop up to address. An argument that I don’t hear very often, but that I think plays a role, is that we would not be able to signal our generosity and extra wealth if we just expanded taxes and the role of government.
“In effect, charitable behavior says to our audiences, I have more resources than I need to survive; I can give them away without worry,” continue Simler and Hanson. The fact that our donations are often public and are often directed to causes that make us feel warm and fuzzy are evidence that we are not really using our donations to try to solve real problems. Asking the government to step in and play a bigger role might really address the problems that are out there, but it wouldn’t give us the warm fuzzy feeling we are looking for, and wouldn’t allow us to advertise to others about how charitable we are. This is why it is so hard to say no to people soliciting donations at grocery stores. We don’t know anything about the charitable cause they are asking us to support, but if we don’t take the chance to advertise how generous we are, we inadvertently advertise how inconsiderate we might be, or how little resources we have to spare. These little charitable behaviors end up being more about ourselves than about the good we are trying to do.
One of the big challenges in life is being content with ourselves and our work without needing others to notice the good things we have done. As social creatures we want acknowledgement, praise, and approval from our fellow humans, so simply being good or doing good on our own doesn’t seem to satisfy us in the way we need. We all recognize and understand that we should be content without someone patting us on the head to tell us good job, but nevertheless, we pursue social approval all the time.
Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson look at this type of behavior within our charitable donations in their book The Elephant in the Brain. They write, “Griskevicius calls this phenomenon blatant benevolence. Patrick West calls it conspicuous compassion. The idea that we’re motivated to appear generous, not simply to be generous, because we get social rewards only for what others notice. In other words, charity is an advertisement, a way of showing off.”
As a child, I used to seek approval and gratitude from my mother in a similarly conspicuous way. If I did a chore like vacuuming, I would leave the vacuum out so that my mother would see that I did something. She would tell me to put the vacuum away and be a little frustrated, but at least I could be sure that she knew that I did something good.
These direct appeals for attention, praise, and recognition are frowned upon. We don’t like the person at the gym water fountain who over-plays how out of breath they are and tells us how hard that last set of squats with all that weight was. We don’t like the person in the office that goes out of their way to show us how long the report they wrote was. As adults, it is harder to get away with obvious gestures that are designed to get people to notice the good things we do.
Our charitable uses of money or time are a way to get around this. We can publicly donate a large amount of money, we can save our money for donations in public settings such as charity auctions, and we can make sure that everyone sees our Facebook photo about how blessed we feel to be able to give back by volunteering. As long as it appears that our main motive is to do something good, we can get away with the same type of bragging or showing off that I did as a child when I made it super obvious that I had done my chores.