Not all forms of altruism are created equal. Or, to put it another way, not all forms of altruism are perceived as being equally altruistic. When doing good coincides with doing well, the way that people view an altruistic act can change.

George Newman, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, decided to study that dynamic after reading an article by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. The column detailed the saga of Dan Pallotta, a prominent fundraiser whose company had done very well financially by raising money for AIDSRide bicycle events, Breast Cancer 3-Day walks, and other charitable activities. Pallotta, in the wake of widespread criticism about applying for-profit business practices to the nonprofit sector, had seen his company collapse.

In a series of experiments, Newman and a colleague at the Yale School of Management, Daylian Cain, asked participants to read scenarios in which a person (or an organization) engaged in acts that did or didn’t have a charitable component. One group read about situations in which people derived some kind of personal reward from an altruistic act. Another group read about self-interested acts that produced no charitable benefits. In all instances, participants voiced a less favorable opinion about acts that yielded both charitable and personal benefits than they did about acts that produced only personal benefits. But after experimenters reminded participants that the “altruistic” person just as easily could have engaged in a wholly selfish act, participants re-evaluated the situation and registered a more favorable opinion of that person.

“There is something fairly deep-seated about the idea that if someone is going to behave altruistically, they have to do it for reasons that are pure,” Newman says. “When you hear about somebody who is charitable but is earning a profit, it brings to mind an alternative state in which [someone else] is only behaving charitably.”

In an experiment based loosely on a real-world example, participants learned about the Gap’s participation in the Product Red marketing campaign in which the clothing retailer donated 50 percent of its revenue from selected items to AIDS research in Africa. One group of participants responded to that information by registering a largely favorable attitude toward the company. People in a second group, meanwhile, were reminded that the retailer would retain 50 percent of Red-based revenue for itself. “That was enough for people to have a fairly negative reaction toward the Gap,” says Newman. Next, experimenters noted to people in the second group that the Gap could easily have chosen to donate nothing at all to AIDS research; those participants then registered a positive attitude toward the company. “It seems that you can push around people’s judgments fairly easily just by presenting this kind of alternative information,” says Newman.

(Illustration by Ben Wiseman) 

Deborah Small, associate professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that people are highly attuned to cues that suggest selfish motivation. This paper, she says, shows that “if you change the counterfactual so that people are thinking not about how much more the organization could have done, but about how much less they could have done, the organization appears [more favorable].”

To circumvent such biases, Newman counsels, organizations that engage in charitable efforts should take special care in framing those efforts publicly—by, for example, presenting information that puts their giving in a broad context. “There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests our reasoning around charity is pretty complicated,” he says. “Our intuitions about what kinds of things are going to be effective don’t always seem to be accurate.”

George E. Newman and Daylian M. Cain, “Tainted Altruism: When Doing Some Good Is Evaluated as Worse Than Doing No Good at All,” Psychological Science, 25, March 2014.

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