Why We Care About Others

>> Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Harvard Business School recently released the results from a new study on generosity (HT @ryandrumwright). As they put it in their press release:

“This research provides the first support for a possible psychological universal: human beings around the world derive emotional benefits from using their financial resources to help others (prosocial spending). Analyzing survey data from 136 countries, we show that prosocial spending is consistently associated with greater happiness.”

In other words, humans are wired to feel happy when we help others.

It’s a bit of a foreign idea to old-school economic thought, which has at its core the assumption that everything we do is motivated by rational self interest. Since the meltdown of the markets and the emergence of behavioral economics (if you haven’t read it yet, be sure to check out Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely), we have all begun to clue in to the fact that a good number of the things people do are not the result of logical thought, but instead are the result of a messy collision of different evolutionary impulses that we have amassed over the millions of years.

As Robert Sapolsky puts it in a recent column in the NY Times, “evolution is a tinkerer, not an inventor.” We are not the result of a quantum biological leap that is unique in the animal kingdom. Rather, the faculties that make us human have been built on the foundation of other capabilities. So for instance, the part of your brain that detects that a piece of food is disgusting is also the part that activates when you read about some morally disgusting act (like the banks just rubber-stamping foreclosures).

In one study Dr. Sapolsky talks about in his column, “Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto and Katie Liljenquist of Northwestern University demonstrated how the brain has trouble distinguishing between being a dirty scoundrel and being in need of a bath. Volunteers were asked to recall either a moral or immoral act in their past. Afterward, as a token of appreciation, Zhong and Liljenquist offered the volunteers a choice between the gift of a pencil or of a package of antiseptic wipes. And the folks who had just wallowed in their ethical failures were more likely to go for the wipes.”

The scientist Dan Batson applies this thinking to generosity and empathy. In a recent column he wrote for On The Human, he discusses the evidence for the theory that our empathy for others is just an offshoot of the much older evolutionary quality of caring for our children. The same part of our brain that rewards us for nurturing our kids (even when all we want is for them to be quiet and leave us alone – don’t pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about), is the part that rewards us for being kind, generous and helpful to strangers.

The positive emotions we get from generosity are a human universal, and it is part of what has enabled us to succeed as a species. As companies and marketers, we often become so locked in the transactional nature of our business (I’ll give you this coupon or service, but first you have to buy my product), that this very powerful truth seems completely foreign and unworkable. We should take heed of companies like Toms Shoes and campaigns like the Pepsi Refresh Project.

Generosity at a corporate or brand level requires a leap of faith, but there are big rewards for the teams who are able to make the jump.

Hope this finds you well,

Jacob Braude

VP, Strategic Planner


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