Most of us want to get our “fair share” in life–whether it’s a toddler wanting the same number of cookies as their playmate or an adult wanting equal pay for equal work. We are genetically programmed to meet our basic resource needs (food, shelter, etc.) as well as to contribute to the continuation of our species. When resources are scarce, we get especially anxious as we want to make sure that we are not shorted on the necessities. In our cultural environment, however, our “needs” are far overshadowed by our “wants.” Not content with basic carbs and any form of protein, we crave low-fat, no-bake chocolate raspberry tortes with fresh whipped cream to top off our meal of grass-fed, Kobe beef or an omelet of eggs laid by free range chickens not treated with hormones and organic, locally grown peppers and onions. Our “shelter dreams” have spawned a magazine industry–Dwell, Architectural Digest, and Coastal Living, to name just a few–and television empires–HGTV, for instance. Traditionally, we have prioritized the survival of the species over our own individual survival, but most of us don’t mind having the nicest toys while we are among the living.
Fairness and the Greater Good
Researchers, however, continue to provide evidence that we are willing to make a sacrifice for the greater good, when it comes down to it–even when it goes against logic or expectations (Wischniewski, Windmann, Juckel, & Brune, 2009). And in an old Star Trek episode, Mr. Spock once proclaimed that, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Captain Kirk answers, “Or the one.” While we are hardwired for survival, we do have another level of “computer code” in our brains that redirects our focus to a higher order perspective. This allows us to put aside our own desires in order to ensure that others have enough. And helping others is something that can provide an intrinsic reward–that may be part of the preprogrammed “survival of the species” code of conduct.
Why "Do Gooders" Unsettle Others
It feels great to do a good turn for someone–helping others helps us feel better about ourselves. However, there are some friends who can’t seem to get enough of helping others. They go out of their way to accommodate the needs and even whims of their friends and acquaintances. They go out of their way to help those who cannot help themselves. They seek out causes and charity projects with fervor and commitment. And while what they do has unquestionably high value, some do-gooders also have a way of making some of us feel bad about ourselves. In fact, research has shown that when we are in the midst of exceptionally generous people, in situations where exceptional generosity isn’t the norm or exactly necessary, we will view these philanthropic folks as “rule-breakers” and may harbor the desire to expel them from the group (Parks & Stone, 2010). We may also fear that their exceptionally benevolent behavior may raise the bar that all members must meet to maintain a sense of belonging in the group. Few of us like to be seen as stingy with our resources or miserly with our money, but comparisons to the actions and achievements of others is also hardwired in our brains.
Dealing with Those Who Do Too Much
Thus, these wonderfully generous people can leave us feeling like the Grinch with our heart two sizes too small. So how do you handle it when the paragon of virtue leaves you feeling like a selfish clod? If he is giving because he’s just that good, share your admiration of his good works and let him know that he is making a difference to so many. He might not need the pats on the back, but it might leave you feeling good to provide them. If he is giving to impress, it may be tiring to hear of his good deeds, but it can be easiest if you acknowledge his virtue and get on with things. When people need an audience, they can do what it takes to get one–save the Do-Gooder and yourself some trouble and just smile, nod, acknowledge, and carry on.
Parks, C. D., & Stone, A. B. (2010). The desire to expel unselfish members from the group. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(2), 303-310.
Wischniewski, J., Windmann, S., Juckel, G., & Brune, M. (2009). Rules of social exchange: Game theory, individual differences and psychopathology. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 33(3), 305-313.