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UC Berkeley Press Release

Study shows people compete to be generous

– As the season of goodwill and big spending crests, a new study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and Cornell University indicates that people - when observed - are conspicuously generous in their giving and will even compete in the bigheartedness department to win favor and make friends.

"I think it's a dynamic you see a lot around the holidays. Some folks spend time worrying about how their gifts stack up relative to others, and people seem to compete to give better gifts than others to develop a reputation as a generous person," said UC Berkeley assistant sociology professor Robb Willer, who co-authored the study with Cornell University evolutionary biologist Pat Barclay.

"At the same time, Willer added, "it's certainly a dynamic at odds with the traditional spirit of the holiday season, so competitive generosity may be something to avoid, if possible, in order to preserve the sincerity of the 'season of giving.'"

The study, "Partner Choice Creates Competitive Altruism in Humans," is set to be published tomorrow (Wednesday, Dec. 20) in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London: Biological Sciences.

While the finding of "competitive altruism" seems a contradiction in terms, the study's results signal significant implications not only for the evolution of human cooperation, but for everyday life, Willer said.

"People value money and resources, but they also value having a good reputation and are willing to invest in maintaining one," he said.

Barclay and Willer embarked on the study together after each completing independent dissertation research showing that people behave generously in large part to develop a good reputation. To take their findings a step further, they sought to discover whether people would actively compete to be the most generous, and set about creating the conditions for altruistic one-upmanship.

As part of the study, 31 women and 23 men from Cornell University engaged in various exercises testing for cooperation and altruistic competition. Initially, for example, participants were paired off and each given 10 "lab dollars," of which any amount could be given to his or her partner.

Overall, the study found that participants donated more money when observed by others than when they gave privately. Moreover, when the rules were changed to allow participants to choose their partners, contributions increased dramatically as participants sought to become desirable partners.

"First, we showed that people tended to be more generous when others would know what they gave," Willer said. "But more interestingly, we found that people would compete to be more generous than one another when one might be picked as a future interaction partner by someone else. This is the first demonstration of 'competitive generosity' in controlled conditions that we are aware of."

Why do people compete to give away money? "Generosity is a relative thing," Barclay said. "If you're slightly generous, but everyone around you is selfish, then you'll be a highly desirable partner, all else being equal. However, since everyone might benefit from being a desirable partner, everyone will be slightly generous, so you need to be even more generous than that in order to stand out as a desirable partner and be chosen."

"The paper shows how the freedom to choose social partners can result in people subtly competing to be more altruistic than others," Barclay added.

Choice matters, he said, because it provides an incentive to compete: "If people don't get to choose whom they interact with, then there's no need to compete with others. There's still an incentive to be nice so that others will be nice to you, but you don't need to be nicer than others."

Barclay said a similar dynamic is played out in the dating market, where people compete to be desirable partners so they will find ideal mates. "This study takes this principle and applies it to altruistic acts, thinking about altruism as being part of a competition for social partners," he said.