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Why We Give (or Don't)
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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.

Interestingly, in the Gospels, Jesus makes a point of noting the difference:

Then Jesus said to his host [a prominent Pharisee], "When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." (Luke 14:12-14, NIV)

Similar to the culture of first-century Israel, reciprocity is embedded in the cultures of much of the poor world today. James Scott at Yale and other anthropologists have demonstrated how the poor in developing countries use reciprocal acts of generosity as survival mechanisms, providing, for example, informal insurance. A family bringing food to another who is temporarily unable to work due to illness is not only regarded as kind; the act represents an investment in a reciprocal claim when the situation may be reversed.

The Independent Rich

While poverty fosters interdependence, wealth fosters independence. Virtually everyone in the world has some form of insurance. And as the poor in developing countries partially insure themselves through reciprocating relationships, the rich in America insure with Allstate and Blue Cross. We prefer our impersonal system. The lack of interdependence with others, however, not only results in widespread feelings of isolation and loneliness, but also tightfistedness.

Jesus calls his followers to acts of giving that war with our psychology of personal safety, that violate social norms, that extend beyond self-interest.

Those of us among the world's wealthy tend to believe that our good economic standing is largely due to our own cleverness, resourcefulness, and hard work. If we are unaware of the myriad factors outside of our control that play critical roles to our success, this self-narrative can play repeatedly in our minds like a bad 8-track tape. To the extent that we listen to it, this self-narrative helps us to justify the disproportionate time and money that we spend on our own comforts and entertainment relative to what we give to others who have more important needs than ourselves. It can also powerfully influence our political and economic views about our societal responsibility to the poor.

Effort and aspirations matter. But it is interesting to see the contrast between this deceptive self-narrative and recent academic research. Studies show that adult outcomes are influenced most significantly by factors outside one's control, factors such as the nutritional intake of one's mother during gestation (cognition/IQ), the type and quality of diet during early childhood (cognition/IQ), maternal attachment (persistence), the education and economic status of parents (education, opportunity), and the quality of the economic institutions of the country in which one is born (without which significant wealth creation is all but impossible). Collectively these factors far outside of our control exert an influence over our adult economic outcomes that is many times greater than any disproportionate effort of our own. A lack of awareness and acknowledgement of the role that these factors have exerted in shaping our economic well-being can lead us to give sparingly to those less fortunate, our parsimony based on an internal justification that we deserve it for ourselves due to our remarkable brains and hard work.

Jesus calls his followers to acts of giving that war with our psychology of personal safety, that violate social norms, that extend beyond self-interest. This is hard to do because we battle all of these psychological, social, and economic instincts that have become programmed into our decision-making DNA. Let's be frank: Who among us (besides Pope Francis) invites the poor, the blind, and the lame to a gathering at our house? Yet this is our benchmark and our challenge, impossible for us without submitting our natural will to the Holy Spirit. Understanding the self-interested motives behind our giving can lead us to into purer acts of charity that more closely mirror those of the one we claim to follow.

Bruce Wydick is Professor of Economics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco. His novel about fair-trade coffee growers in Guatemala, The Taste of Many Mountains, is forthcoming from Thomas Nelson (HarperCollins Christian) in August 2014.

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Why We Give (or Don't)