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Generosity. Give or take?


"We'd all like a reputation for generosity, and we'd all like to buy it cheap". Mignon McLaughlin

In an episode of the hit TV sitcom 'Seinfeld', a rather obnoxious character offers and then insists a reluctant Jerry Seinfeld takes his Armani suit, as it no longer fits him. Jerry senses there's going to be trouble. The man says: "And I don't even want anything for it... OK, I'll let you buy me dinner!" Jerry reluctantly takes him out to an expensive restaurant in return for having his suit, but the man only has soup and a sandwich. He then tells Jerry that he has not had a 'proper dinner' as soup isn't 'dinner'. He now expects to be taken out again and again, because, each time, he hasn't had a 'proper dinner'. Jerry ends up passing on the cursed suit to someone else.

It's clear that this man had not really done Jerry any favour at all.

What he had really done was force a transaction on Jerry - "I'll give you this if you give me that!" This is no more generosity than 'fool's gold' is the real stuff.

Recognising real generosity

I love generous people - and generosity can take many forms. A generous person doesn't hog the limelight but will listen and be interested in others. They let other people speak - that is a genuine form of generosity. Greed for attention is a form of meanness. The generous-hearted will make light of their own generosity and not be unduly impressed by their own acts of giving. They are more likely to feel that it is 'really nothing' or just 'natural'. You are unlikely to find self-importance, self-congratulation and true generosity combined in the same person.

A truly generous person will remember kindnesses done to them, but forget those they have done for other people.

The psychology of fake generosity

People who are merely putting on a generous front, however, never forget what they have done for you and always expect something in return (like Seinfeld's 'benefactor' above). Psychologist Francis Flynn did some research in 2003 on favours. He discovered that right after a favour has been done, the receiver of the favour holds it in greater value than the giver - but as time goes on this reverses. The recipient of the favour devalues the favour whilst the favour-giver sees it as more important as time passes (1) - especially, presumably, if no favour has been returned.

This clearly has more to do with the psychology of commercial transaction than disinterested generosity. We like to see ourselves in the best possible light, so if you have received a favour you may be grateful at first but six months later it may suit you to feel you didn't really need that much help at the time after all. Ingratitude is a form of meanness. But why do we have to be 'paid' in order to give freely?

The genuinely generous won't have to be emotionally 'paid' for their acts of giving by getting a buzz or feeling 'like a good person'. They won't have to be seen to be generous by others and therefore 'paid' by feeling superior. This is because being generous only feels different or special if it's something you don't usually do - if it's out of character. Meanness denies the humanity of others and somehow makes the mean-minded smaller as people. Being close-fisted and 'tight' is a cowardly way of living.

But it's easy to feel generous or even have a generous reputation while really operating through disguised commercial transaction.

Generosity or disguised commercial transaction?

Someone does you a favour and you feel obliged or 'beholden' to them. If they do you too many favours, you may even come to resent them. But it's hard to resent someone for being good to you, so your unconscious may have to invent justifications as to why you don't like them. Because to dislike someone because they've been good to you... well, it's just not right, is it? The truly generous, however, will make light of the good they do (or even deny they have done good). In this way they can maintain the self respect of the person they have helped.

If someone does you favours in expectation of favours back from you, then the favour-giver is actually putting you under pressure - emotional blackmail. The 'generous act' is really a disguised commercial transaction - "After all I've done for you, and you can't even do XXXX for me!" True generosity isn't about transaction - me doing you a favour so that you can 'owe me one'. Of course, reciprocation is useful in society, but it is not to be confused with real generosity.

When doing favours isn't generous

Human relationships need balance. Once we understand the hidden rules that govern human behaviour then life becomes easier to manage.

One of these hidden rules is that of obligation or reciprocation. Advertisers know about the power of obligation, as they demonstrate from their free gifts in cereal packets to the 'complimentary cup of coffee' as you peruse the expensive sports car. If someone gives us something, or does something for us, we feel beholden (unless of course we have been unreasonably spoilt by having too much done for us early on). Compliments can have a similar effect, as they make us feel as if someone has done something for us, and because of this we may feel more inclined/unconsciously motivated to do something back for the complimentary person.

Hope for humanity

But I think that for civilization to be... well, civilized! we need people who are willing to altruistically look after and out for one another without seeking material or emotional rewards. We should do things for one another. Selfishness is good for no one, but favours can be used as weapons when the favours grow not from a truly generous heart but merely from self-interest. Raising such issues as matters of concern will often meet with resistance, as hypocrisy is always going to protect itself. The standard response is often: "Yes, but as long as good things are being done, does it matter if the do-gooder gets an emotional payment by feeling good about themselves for doing it?" This reveals a sadly pessimistic view of human nature, and probably stems from the increasing influence of current explanations of human behaviour based on ideas of essential selfishness.

If we are optimistic about the future development of the human race, however, then the more true selfless generosity there is, the better people are going to be. For this to happen we would (at least hypothetically) have to firstly believe that true and completely un-selfish generosity is possible, and secondly stop worshipping generosity as something sublime rather than just a natural part of being human.

If generosity can't truly exist because we are all essentially selfish (as current trends would have us believe) then favours must always be viewed with suspicion.

I think we all, at least potentially, are bigger than that.

(1) Flynn, F. J. (2003). What have you done for me lately? Temporal adjustments to favour evaluations. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 91, 38-50.

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