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Why We Give (or Don't)
Image: Peter Dutton / Flickr

This past July in Massachusetts, Eileen Taylor, a customer in a Heavenly Doughnuts drive-thru, paid not only for her own doughnuts, but for the order of the following car. This simple act resulted in a chain of 55 customers who paid for the next customer in line. Not to be outdone by their American cousins, a chain of 228 customers at a Tim Horton's in Winnipeg did the same thing. And now 1,468 patrons (and counting) at a Starbucks in Connecticut have paid for the order of the car behind them since late last year. Adding to the intrigue of these events, an anonymous patron signing his credit card "@TipsForJesus" has been dropping $1,000-$5,000 tips at restaurants and bars across the country. Have North Americans developed a crush on humanity, or are we just happy to be out of the recession?

These unusual events lead to some intriguing questions: Why do we give to others? Why do we choose not to? New research seeking answers to these questions has important implications for Christians. For example, not all of our giving is altruistic.

Psychologists, for instance, have conjectured that tipping behavior can be explained by equity theory. According to equity theory, people are internally programmed to experience anxiety when interpersonal exchange with others is inequitable. So unless he spills the soup in our lap, we tip the waiter because inequity in the exchange would otherwise cause us anxiety. We are willing to pay to reduce anxiety, so we do.

If everyone else tips or pays for the next customer in line, I ought to do the same, or I risk feeling isolated from the group.

But tipping doesn't exist in every society. Sociologists thus emphasize the social pressures we face to conform to their community's norms. If everyone else tips or pays for the next customer in line, I ought to do the same, or I risk feeling isolated from the group. (And of course, we all want to be part of the group, especially adults.)

Other social scientists maintain that identity can explain otherwise perplexing behavior. Identity theory postulates that as we embrace an identity, we will alter our behavior to conform to the prescriptive ideal of this identity. So while, say, a gangster identity will prescribe drive-by shooting, a wealthy patron identity prescribes donating large sums of money to charitable causes. Thus some may donate in an effort to conform to a particular identity.

Hidden Motives

A generation ago, economists contributed little to explaining generosity; economic models assumed self-interest. Acts of generosity were irritating anomalies within the self-interest paradigm, and economics struggled to explain them. (I once met a researcher at a conference who had devoted most of his career to unsuccessfully trying to find the economic rationality behind tipping.) But a new generation of economists schooled in the modern tools of game theory and behavioral economics has made a little more headway.

Even if you are a fully self-absorbed narcissist, you might lend your leaf blower to your next-door neighbor because his wife often picks your kids up from school. In other words, behavior that we might regard as generous or loving may be explainable in terms of naked self-interest.

In a result now popularly known in the field as the "Folk Theorem," it turns out that in the context of a "repeated game" (when social interaction is carried out repeatedly and over an indefinite future), it can be mathematically proven that reciprocity can arise as rational, self-interested behavior. Or more simply: even if you are a fully self-absorbed narcissist, you might lend your leaf blower to your next-door neighbor because his wife often picks your kids up from school. In other words, behavior that we might regard as generous or loving may be explainable in terms of naked self-interest.

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Why We Give (or Don't)