Why Some People Really Resent Do-Gooders
How a good deed can feel like a personal affront.
Posted October 18, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Reactions to a recent viral article suggest that altruists are sometimes judged especially harshly.
- People may regard altruists negatively if they misunderstand their motives or believe they are too vocal.
- Negative reactions may also stem from feeling inadequate or distrusting people who help strangers.
- Becoming more aware of misconceptions about altruism may help increase appreciation for altruists.
A recent New York Times article entitled “Who is the Bad Art Friend?” describes a legal battle between two writers. One is a non-directed kidney donor who posted about her experience in a private Facebook group. The other published a short story that is alleged to include plagiarized text from the kidney donor’s posts.
The central question posed in the article seems to be to what extent a writer has the right to draw from another person’s life. But many readers were less interested in the plagiarism question and more interested in the kidney donor.
Some expressed admiration or sympathy, while others felt that the donor was too vocal and attention-seeking, undercutting her generosity. One group of people, including several prominent writers, took this sentiment even further, using words like “monster,” “disgusting,” “narcissist,” and “sociopath” to describe her on Twitter.
While the NYT story contains elements that could shape perceptions of the donor apart from how she approached the donation, other kidney donors have noted that they received some negative reactions too (along with supportive ones) when they made their donation. Research suggests that it’s not uncommon for people to regard altruistic acts with skepticism and hostility, regardless of who is doing them.
What explains these negative reactions? The following four factors may play a role.
1. Misunderstanding motives.
It may be harder for people to understand the motivations behind behaviors that they would not personally choose. If we can’t imagine wanting to engage in an extreme act of altruism for its own sake, we might assume that sinister ulterior motives must be involved. But people’s brains work in different ways, and what seems outlandish to one person might seem normal to someone else.
For many kidney donors, the suffering of strangers really does hit differently, activating empathy responses in their brains in ways that mirror how other people might respond to a loved one in pain. So when donors explain that their motivation is to help someone who is suffering, we can probably take them at their word. If they were only trying to get attention or praise, they could have found much less costly ways to do that.
Even if an altruist feels good about themselves as a result, that doesn’t mean their act is selfish. The fact that an altruistic behavior can have personal benefits is a good thing—the better it feels, the more likely people are to do it, and the less likely they are to feel burdened or burned out.
2. Assuming altruism should be anonymous.
People who aren’t familiar with a specific form of altruism may have misconceptions about what it involves. For example, they may not know that sharing information about a kidney donation is often encouraged as a way to educate and inspire others—as well as to elicit support for what can be an emotionally and physically taxing process.
Without understanding this broader context, people may interpret social media posts or public events as a selfish attempt to seek social validation, when in reality, raising awareness and celebrating donors is a critical way to increase donations. A huge number of people need kidneys relative to the small number available.
3. Feeling judged or inadequate.
People may feel like altruists are looking down on them for not making the same choices they have, even if this is not the case. Research finds that feeling inadequate in comparison to a “do-gooder” may threaten a person’s self-esteem, which can then lead them to disparage the do-gooder in an effort to defuse the threat and feel better about themselves. There’s a reason the term “do-gooder” is often used derogatively.
An alternative way to defuse that threat could be to recognize that there are many different ways to be a good person, and that another person’s act of altruism does not make us bad—it’s not actually about us.
4. Distrusting utilitarians.
Research suggests that people may be less trusting of certain types of altruists—those who focus on maximizing the good for the greatest number of people—because they fear they will be less loyal friends or partners. These types of altruists might spend a significant amount of their time and resources serving people they don’t know, as opposed to prioritizing close relationships, a decision people might disapprove of.
But before we judge these altruists too harshly, we might consider how we would feel if we were to find ourselves needing something our own close relationships couldn't provide (the right kidney match, for example); at those times, a generous stranger could make all the difference, and we would probably feel quite grateful that they exist.
What’s the Takeaway?
The next time you find yourself cringing at someone who seems a little too satisfied with their altruistic act, ask yourself what about it is really getting under your skin. Are they causing harm instead of helping? Or are they just helping in a way you don’t relate to? Are they shaming you for not joining them, or just sharing something they’re passionate about?
We don’t need to emulate or celebrate every good deed we see, but becoming aware of the misconceptions that may underlie our discomfort may help us think about and appreciate altruists in a different way.
LinkedIn image: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock. Facebook image: SynthEx/Shutterstock
Everett, J. A. C., Faber, N. S., Savulescu, J., & Crockett, M. J. (2018). The costs of being consequentialist: Social inference from instrumental harm and impartial beneficence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 79, 200–216.
Marsh, A. A., Stoycos, S. A., Brethel-Haurwitz, K. M., Robinson, P., VanMeter, J. W., & Cardinale, E. M. (2014). Neural and cognitive characteristics of extraordinary altruists. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(42), 15036–15041.
Minson, J. A., & Monin, B. (2011). Do-gooder derogation: Disparaging morally motivated minorities to defuse anticipated reproach. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(2), 200-207.
Kolker, R. (2021, October 5). Who is the bad art friend? The New York Times.
Semrau, M. (2021, October 12). There is no such thing as bragging too much about a kidney donation. Slate.
‘Laker for a Day’ Facebook video inspires man to donate his kidney (March 15, 2018). UCLA Medical School Health News.